Tony Cliff

Patterns of mass strike

(Part 3)

Background to the 1972 miners’ strike

The level of activity and solidarity of both miners and non-miners during this strike cannot be properly understood without a look at the background of the preceding years.

The run-up to the 1972 strike was exactly the opposite of the 1926 strike – a long period of rising workers’ militancy on a large scale. This was based on the two decades after the war when shop stewards’ organisation went from strength to strength. For a whole generation workers did not experience serious defeat comparable with the bitter and exhausting defeats of the twenties. Workers’ living standards improved continuously. The struggle for improved pay and conditions was led by shop stewards’ committees and similar rank- and-file organisations. The workers developed a new tradition of ‘do-it-yourself’ reformism, that expressed their growing self-reliance and self-assertiveness. Throughout the period unofficial strikes dominated the field of industrial relations. As many as 95% of all strikes were unofficial. [82] The strikes were by and large of short duration and ended in workers’ victories.

The 1950s were years of increasing wealth and full employment. British capitalism, however, was trapped in a deepening, if not so obvious, contradiction: its prosperity went hand in hand with the long-term decline of the British economy vis-à-vis the world economy. Intermittent crises demonstrated this. Movements towards economic expansion involved deterioration in the balance of payments which in turn led to a loss of confidence in sterling, and to foreign exchange crises. ‘Stop-go’ was the rule.

This situation led one British government after another to try and impose an incomes policy. In 1962, for the first time, the Macmillan government introduced a pay pause which was largely voluntary. In 1965 the Labour government operated a stronger and more detailed form of control over pay, through the National Board of Prices and Incomes to which a total of 170 prices arid incomes references were made. To start with the incomes policy was voluntary, but in 1966 statutory elements were imposed. In the sterling crisis of July 1966 a complete statutory freeze on pay was imposed. This was followed by a series of measures giving ministers the power to delay the implementation of individual pay agreements for varying periods while these were investigated by the NBPI. In the event of an adverse report by the Board further delaying powers could be employed.

A continuous rise in prices moved workers to greater and greater resistance to the government’s incomes policy. By 1969 the government was forced to abandon most of the statutory apparatus, and rely instead on voluntary agreements alone.

When elected in 1970, Ted Heath entirely repealed the incomes policy and dissolved the NBPI. He intended to rely on an increased level of unemployment, greater resistance to public sector pay claims and the proposed Industrial Relations Act. When it became clear the strategy was not working, the Tory government in 1972 returned to an incomes policy with even stronger statutory control than the Labour government one.

The workers reacted. To the extent that incomes policy was effective, it dammed up claims from several groups, particularly in the public sector, that had fallen behind those in the private sector. The period was also one of sharply rising prices, first as a consequence of the devaluation of sterling in November 1967, and then from the increases in world commodity prices which were to dominate the early 1970s.

In 1969 a prolonged and ultimately successful major strike of local authority workers took place. Other workers went on strike the same year: lorry drivers, Ford workers, dockers, miners, teachers. This really was a wages explosion, and it was called so. In 1970 other big strikes and industrial actions took place: by local government manual workers, Vauxhall workers, miners, electricity workers and teachers. In 1971 Ford workers, electricity workers and post office workers came out on strike; in 1972 miners, dockers and building Workers.

From 1966 onwards governments, both Labour and Tory, moved towards a policy of imposing a new legal framework of industrial relations. Wilson was forced to retreat in 1969, when In Place of Strife was killed by union resistance. When returned to power the Conservatives introduced an Industrial Relations Act that became law in 1971. Agitation for strikes against the Industrial Relations Act led to a one-day unofficial strike in December 1970 involving 600,000 workers, primarily from the motor and printing industries.

In February 1971 a march against the Bill attracted 130,000 workers; in March some 2 million workers came out on strike against it. As political strikes are not officially counted as strikes, one has to rely on estimates for their size. One such estimate is that the strikes, official and unofficial, against the Industrial Relations Act in 1970-71 involved twice as many workers as the entire year’s industrial disputes. [83]

A new method of industrial action took hold on a large scale – factory occupations. It started in August 1971 with 8,500 workers of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders undertaking a work-in. It was followed by over 200 occupations of factories, workshops, shipyards, and offices during the following 18 months.

Colin Crouch summed up very well how government intervention – incomes policy, industrial relations legislation, the push towards productivity deals, etc – forced workers to generalise their own struggles: ‘In part it has been the very reforms designed to reinstitutionalise local action – incomes policy, reforms to bargaining structures and payment systems, productivity bargaining, and industrial relations reform – which have broken the local isolation of militant action and given it wider repercussions both economically and politically. The growth of shop-floor militancy initially produced a government response which forced industrial relations to become intensely politicised.’ [84]

This was the background to a period in which the NUM pursued a generally conciliatory policy towards the Labour governments of 1945-51 and 1964-70 and passive compliance towards the Tory governments of 1951-64. Throughout the thirteen years of Tory rule pits were systematically closed. The NUM leaders, as well as the members, believed that an end would be put to these closures when Labour took office. But in 1964-70 the Labour government massively reduced the labour force in the pits. During thirteen years of Tory government, 1951-64, the number of miners declined by 175,600; while during the six years of the Labour government it declined by 211,900 to a mere 305,100 workers.

The NUM leaders no more opposed Labour’s wages control than they did pit closures. Again and again miners were trapped by the Labour government’s incomes policy. In 1948 miners’ wages were 29 per cent above the average pay of workers in manufacturing industries. By 1960 it was 7.4 per cent, and by 1970 miners were earning 3.1 per cent less than the average worker in manufacturing. Added to this, in 1966 came the impact of the National Power Loading Agreement. The NPLA ended piece work and secured the equalisation of wages throughout the coal industry, so that for example, the miners in South Wales would be paid the same rate for the job as the miners in Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire. The NPLA was gradually implemented between 1966 and 1971: ‘The effect of NPLA was to equalise pay, but in doing so, low pay was “nationalised” and the unforeseen effect of NPLA was to “nationalise” dissatisfaction over wages throughout the NUM’. [85]

The angriest miners were in Yorkshire. Up to the 1960s pit closures were confined mainly to peripheral coal fields which learnt to live for a decade with this phenomenon. Yorkshire – the largest Area coal field – felt the full impact in the mid-1960s, and it had a tremendous psychological effect on the miners. In 1967 alone 9 pits were closed in Yorkshire. Furthermore in 1967-68 the miners there were in the unique position of having their wages held back twice:

once by incomes policy, then by the implementation of the NPLA. There were large unofficial strikes in Yorkshire in 1955 and 1961.

The 1955 strike was concerned with inadequate price lists and the tardiness of their revision. It began at Markham Main (Armthorpe) and spread quickly so that after a few days there were 44,660 miners on strike.

The 1961 strike, though starting in North Yorkshire, was centred in the Doncaster area where the Brodsworth branch called on the Doncaster Panel to call a strike over piece rates, which the Panel duly did. The strike largely failed to spread despite the efforts of flying pickets, although Doncaster itself stayed out for some three months. [86]

Of even greater impact was the explosion of miners’ frustration in 1969. The issue round which the strike broke out was the working hours of surface workers. On the morning of Monday 13 October, every pit but one in Yorkshire was idle. The remaining pit came out by the Tuesday: ‘The strike spread from Yorkshire, its main base, to Scotland, South Wales, Derbyshire, Kent, Nottingham and the Midlands until it involved 130,000 miners from 140 pits. It lasted from 13th to 27th October, 1969. It spread despite poor communications between the Areas.’ [87]

Another unofficial strike, this time round wages, broke out in 1970. Again the Doncaster Panel was at the centre of it. The strike spread from Yorkshire to South Wales and Scotland – altogether 103,000 miners went on strike. [88] Andrew Taylor writes: ‘The importance of these strikes was that they were organised by the branch leadership via the Panel system.’ [89]

The rising rank-and-file pressure shaped a new leadership in the Yorkshire NUM. Between 1947 and 1973 the area was controlled by the right. As late as April 1968 a Yorkshire area conference of the NUM voted against industrial action over pit closures by a show of hands. The decision of the conference was put to a branch vote which approved it by 1,671 votes to 210. [90] Still, for many years there were groups of militant miners burrowing away. It is interesting to note that in the Yorkshire Area Vice-Presidential elections in 1961, Jock Kane, the Communist, received 23,797 votes, not far behind the right-wing winner, Jack Leigh, who got 29,797 votes. [91]

In 1967 the Barnsley Miners Forum was founded. It met monthly and acted as a ginger group of branch lay officials. It played an important role in standing up to the right-wing leadership of the Yorkshire NUM, and initiated the 1969 and 1970 unofficial mass strikes.

In 1972, however, the miners won not only by their own efforts but by the help they received from other workers. These groups, above all, were the power workers and the Birmingham engineers. What was the experience of power workers prior to 1972 that made them so willing to aid the miners’ strike industrially?

In September 1967 the Prices and Incomes Board, in reply to a request for a 5 per cent wage rise put forward by the unions in the electricity supply industry, offered 3.7 per cent, with heavy new productivity strings attached. The workers responded by threatening a strike. In a few stations it even came to actual strike action, and they won a wage rise of 10 per cent. [92]

Again, power workers participated in the wages explosion of 1969, and, through unofficial activity, again got a 10 per cent wage rise. [93] In 1970 they came back for another bite at the cherry. At various unofficial meetings up and down the country in the summer of 1970, the demand came from the rank and file for a payrise of £10 a week, without string. In November the unions put forward a claim for £5.80. The employers responded with an offer of £1.75, raised later to £2. The unions therefore began a work-to-rule and ban on overtime. Frank Chapple explained that one reason for refusing arbitration was that ‘it would undoubtedly have led to strikes and loss of all control of our members in industry.’

The effects of the work-to-rule were felt immediately, indeed in some areas even before it had officially started. ‘The worst power cuts since the fuel crisis of 1947’, declared the Financial Times, which listed firms and industries across the country which were hit by power cuts. On the second day, peak-period power cuts totalled 31%. All through the week the effects of the supply workers’ action were brought home to the entire population, as lights went out, machines stopped and factories closed. [94]

A vicious propaganda campaign, much worse than that against the miners in 1984-85, was launched against the power workers:

The stories of power workers and engineers being threatened and assaulted were increasing in number. Doctors and dentists were knocking power workers off their lists all over the place, publicans and shop-keepers would not serve them, a power-workers’ social event was given a bomb-scare, etc. There were abusive phone calls by the hundred, bomb threats and kidnap threats. Saturday brought reports of bricks through windows, paint splashings, tyre slashing, and a Norweb fitter beaten up in the Street in broad daylight ... And on Sunday night, on the David Frost show, a power worker was physically assaulted in front of a lynch-mob audience. [95]

The hysterical campaign served the union leaders as an excuse to call off the work-to-rule. The Wilberforce Court of Inquiry was set up, and after a few days came up with a report that gave nothing beyond the £2 basic, a few small changes, to shift and holiday allowances, plus a productivity deal in the form of a lead-in payment, selling jobs for extra money. In 1971 the labour force went down by 13%, while the average wage rose by 20%. [96]

Many power workers rejected the lead-in payment during 1971. The main area of resistance was the South East where 25 out of 50 stations rejected the scheme. There were also isolated groups of workers dotted about the country – from Edinburgh to Newton Abbot – which did the same.

A few days after the beginning of the 1972 miners’ strike, power workers were engaged in a campaign for a wage increase for themselves. The Power Workers’ Combine, an unofficial national organisation of shop stewards in the industry, met on 14 January to discuss what action to take in support of their claim. And ‘On Monday 24 January, the power workers at West Ham, West Thurrock, Woolwich and other power stations in Britain started an overtime ban in advance of. the official national overtime ban planned to start on 1 February. However, in negotiations with the government and the Electricity Board, the union leaders agreed to put off the national overtime ban until 7 February.’ [97]

(The national ban did not take place. The power workers’ claim was settled.)

Birmingham engineers, the majority of them car workers, also came to the aid of the miners in Saltley. What was the level of their industrial militancy in the preceding years?

The heart of the car industry was the BMC (British Motor Corporation), centred on Birmingham-Coventry. In the words of two economists who studied the completely unofficial BMC Combine Committee in that period:

The Committee is primarily concerned with the rates of pay in the separate plants, particularly with piece rates. The knowledge of the higher piece rates or earnings in some plants acts as an inducement to those stewards in the plants with lower piece rates or earnings to catch up. Thus, although the individual incentive rates in the various plants were not centrally controlled by management and permitted variations in average earnings between plants, the unofficial Combine Committee created pressure to equalise the earnings upwards in all the plants in all the regions.

Given the leading position of the BMC workers and their stewards in the motor industry, and the leading position of the motor industry in the engineering industry, BMC workers have more strikes than other firms in the motor industry. In a very real sense, they act as the vanguard of the wages movement. [98]

It is quite instructive to look at the Department of Employment Gazette Report on prominent stoppages in 1970. There were five such stoppages in the motor car industry and 11 in other engineering plants in Birmingham. All the Birmingham strikes were aggressive – in the great majority workers demanding a significant rise in pay. [99]

In 1971 the story repeats itself. There were nine prominent stoppages in the motor car industry in Birmingham, and four in other engineering plants. Again, as in the year before, but even more so, the strikes in Birmingham were aggressive – to improve pay. [100]

Industrial solidarity action by one group of workers to aid another depends on the self-confidence of the group in the face of their own employers. Given the offensive and generally successful nature of the Birmingham carworkers’ own struggles, they were therefore specially willing and able to aid the miners when they were called upon to do so.

Three basic factors shape the main features of any strike: (i) the relative confidence of workers in the face of their employers, (ii) the relations between the rank and file and the trade union bureaucracy, and (iii) the depth of sectionalism dividing the workers. All three are interrelated and all are relative.

The 1972 miners’ strike showed the miners very confident and aggressive vis-à-vis the NCB and the government; the rank and file relatively independent of the trade union bureaucracy, and sectional divisions, whether amongst miners or between miners and other workers, minimal. However, these were not absolutes. If the rank and file were absolutely independent of the bureaucracy, and sectionalism absolutely missing, the strike would have turned into a proletarian revolution.

At the end of the 1972 strike the NUM bureaucracy did assert its control. This must be grasped if one wants to understand the developments that took place later that prepared the wound for 1984-85.

When Phase II of Heath’s Incomes Policy was introduced on 1 April 1973, limiting wage rises to £1 plus 4 per cent, the NUM did not oppose it. Now it was the turn of gas workers, civil servants, teachers and hospital ancillary workers, probably encouraged by the victories of miners, dockers, car workers, the year before, to go into battle. However, the attempts of these groups were not successful. [101]

Then came the miners’ strike of 1974, which clearly showed the stranglehold of thç NUM bureaucracy. It was radically different to the 1972 strike. On 12 November 1973 the NUM imposed a complete overtime ban. In response, next day, the government declared a State of Emergency, with the aim of preserving fuel stocks. On 1 January 1974 a 3-day week was imposed. This aimed to save coal and turn public opinion against the miners. On 7 February a general election was announced for 18 February. On 9 February the miners started their strike. The NUM leaders, Vic Allen writes,

wanted to avoid the spontaneity of 1972, the relative autonomy of local strike committees and the confrontations. This time they wanted to control the strike from the national centre so that they could determine tactics and regulate its scope. They planned from the outset to contain the strike and, in so far as it was possible, to give it a respectable image. [102]

The National Executive Commitee of the NUM made formal arrangements for the strike at its meeting on 5th February. In the first instance, it tried to make sure that the control of the strike would be centralised in its own hands. It stated that the administration of the strike should not be con trolled by pit level liaison committees but by Area Liaison Committees comprising all sections of the Union in consultation with the National Strike Committee ... It also laid down that picketing should only take place after it had been authorized by the National Strike Committee. These regulations were aimed at curbing spontaneous picketing decisions involving the use of flying pickets and secondary picketing activities. [103]

The National Strike Committee prescribed that ‘there would be no more than six pickets at any site at any time’. Certainly there were complaints from rank-and-file miners about the instruction to limit the pickets to six. But when such complaints reached the Yorkshire Area Executive, all they could say was: We know that this might damage enthusiasm, but be assured, there are very good reasons.’ [104] Scargill, now President of the Yorkshire NIJM, abided completely by the ruling. [105]

The main reason for the line of action imposed by the NUM leadership was their desire not to embarrass the Labour Party during the general election campaign. Ted Heath lost the election, and this led to the miners winning their case.

Had Heath won the election, in all probability the miners would still have won the strike, but for that they would have had to change their tactics radically, to become more aggressive, organise mass picketing, etc. Other workers, non-miners, showed as much readiness to give industrial solidarity in 1974 as they did in the previous strike. To take just one example: the power workers, both the EEPTU led by Frank Chapple, and the EPEA, led by John Lyons, offered their full cooperation to the miners. [106] And shop stewards in BSC Anchor Works at Scunthorpe held meetings with the Doncaster Panel to discuss how to close the works.[107]

In the years 1968-74 there was an unstable balance between the political generalisation on the employers’ side – incomes policy and industrial relations legislation – and the industrial militancy on the workers’ side. Such a situation cannot last for long. The unstable equilibrium can lead to one of two outcomes: to political generalisation of the industrial militancy, or to the decline of sectional militancy. In fact the unstable equilibrium in the following few years was destroyed by the policies dominating the British working class – Labourism – the nature of which is summed up in the banner of the Kent NUM: a miner outlined against a pithead and looking towards the Houses of Parliament. This is the essence of what Labourism represents in the relations betwen industrial action and politics. The logic of this dichotomy between economics and politics is that if workers have a claim that brings them up against a Tory government, there is the alternative of a Labour government. But if the claim brings them headlong against a Labour government they have no alternative but to retreat.



The 1984-85 miners’ strike

The 1984-85 miners’ strike was radically different to that of 1972. The level of activity of rank-and-file miners was lower, and, crucially, they showed much less initiative and independence of the bureaucracy. Sectionalism tore the miners apart and isolated them from other workers, who again showed very little independent initiative in supporting the striking miners industrially. In 1984-85 at most 10 pet’ cent of the miners were active on picket duty, and, unlike in 1972, they had to spend much of their time picketing out other miners. Eighteen of the 28 pits in South Wales voted not to strike, and they had to be picketed out. So too were a number of pits in Scotland and a couple in Durham. However in Nottinghamshire from the beginning, a majority worked, and over time the number of miners on strike dwindled considerably.

The cases of industrial solidarity by non-miners were quite few in number. All honour to the railway workers of Coalville, who from April 1984 till the end of the strike sealed off the Leicestershire coalfield. All honour to the Sun printers who twice closed the paper for trying to print scurrilous attacks on the miners. The NUR, ALSEF and NUS made serious efforts to help the miners industrially. Railwaymen handled only about a third of the 600-700,000 tons of coal available to be moved per week. [108] And ‘Workers at Didcot power station made a brave attempt to black coal. Oil tanker drivers blacked oil going into some power stations, and suffered as a result. Shell drivers lost a contract to take heavy fuel oil into Eggborough power station because they respected miners’ picket lines. Even in Nottingham TGWU drivers respected picket lines. In East London Texaco drivers walked out after their work was given to scabs.’ [109]

In 1972, as we saw, the power workers were involved in a campaign to improve their own pay. They were organised in a rank-and-file combine representing shop stewards throughout the industry. In all power stations the workers supported the miners strongly, and this led to 12 power stations closing completely in a couple of weeks, so that 1,400,000 had to be laid off in industry.

As against this, in 1984-85, ‘No meetings were organised by the TGWU and GMBATU between shop stewards in the power stations and miners’ representatives. The first meeting between Arthur Scargill and shop stewards in the power stations in Yorkshire did not take place until the strike had been going for ten and a half months – on 16 January 1985.’ [110] And on 11 April 1984 the unions in the power industry signed a 13-month agreement for a 5.2 per cent wage increase. Not one worker was laid off for lack of electricity in the twelve months of the strike.

Scargill’s call to turn Orgreave into Saltley was not heeded. In 1972 Birmingham engineering workers came to the aid of the miners. But in 1984 the engineering workers of Sheffield, which is much nearer to the coalfields than Birmingham, did not. The battle around Orgreave took much longer than round Saltley, and was much fiercer. In Saltley the engineers turned up to the picket line en masse on the fifth day of the picketing. In Orgreave pickets started on Thursday 24 May with about 1,000 miners; there was a large picket on Sunday 27 May; on Tuesday 29 May there were about 5,000 pickets; on Thursday 31 May, 5,000; on Monday 18 June there were again 5,000 pickets. On 30 May Scargill was arrested, and on 18 June he was-wounded and hospitalised. This mass picketing was major news on the TV and in the press throughout the long days. [111] But still there was no sign of the Sheffield engineers turning up to picket. Why?

To give an answer one has to look at the state of the Sheffield engineers at the time and in the preceding years. The Department of Employment Gazette tells us that the number of major stoppages in Sheffield were: none at all in 1981, only one in 1982 (a defensive strike against forced redundancy and closure of plant), and again only one in 1983 (over proposed redundancies). [112]

Workers who lack the confidence to stand up to their own bosses cannot be expected to come out in support of other workers. This is the basic cause of the tragedy of Orgreave. Limiting oneself to exposing the weaknesses of the rank and file and the role of the trade union bureaucracy in the mining industry alone is tunnel- vision, a concession to sectionalism.

To explain the industrial explosion of 1972 we have to look at the changes in the situation of the working class in the period since the second world war. To explain the state of the working class during the 1984-85 miners’ strike we need to look to the years since Labour came to office in 1974.

Sam Brittan, the guru of the Financial Times and brother of Leon Brittan, the present Home Secretary, recommended a vote for Labour in the 1964 general election because he felt that Labour was more likely than the Tories to soften workers’ resistance to incomes policy. He explained his recommendation in the following way: ‘Paradoxically, one of the strongest economic arguments for a Labour government is that, beneath layers of velvet, it might be more prepared to face a showdown in dealing with the unions.’ [113] The Economist made the same point strongly and plainly: ‘The price of securing an incomes policy in Britain will be a willingness to stand up to strikes.’ [114] ‘Another weapon against unofficial strikes is that, quite bluntly, blacklegging must become respectable again.’ [115]

Both Sam Brittan and The Economist telescoped the process by which a Labour government could soften up worker’s resistance and weaken the workers. The Labour government of 1964-70 took only tentative steps in this direction, while thd great success’ was achieved by the Labour government of 1974-79.

Immediately after coming to office in 1964, Wilson appointed the Donovan Commission to look into union affairs. In 1968 it delivered its report. The main target was clear – shop-floor organisation. ‘Certain features of trade union structure and government hive helped to inflate the power of work-groups and shop stewards.’ [116] To overcome this Donovan suggested a systematic move towards productivity deals with the consequent decline of piece work, which would deprive the shop stewards of their basic role; to increase the number of full-time convenors and senior stewards so as to distance them from the shop floor; and to tighten the links between the senior stewards of the factory and the union bureaucracy.

In 1980 a survey of industrial relations showed that 69 per cent of workplaces employing over 1,000 manual workers had full-time convenors. The speediest growth in the number of full-time senior stewards was in the years 1975-77. [117] Another survey concludes that the number of full-time stewards in manufacturing industry probably quadrupled in the years 1966-76. [118]

Another measure weakening shop steward organisation was workers’ participation. Donovan argued for co-partnership of management and unions through the integration of the shop stewards into the structure of the union and their participation with management. Such participation was introduced into a whole number of key companies. Participation was the rage especially in the car industry during the 1974-79 Labour government.

The above elements were underpinned by the ideology of Labourism. The Labour Party was created and sustained by the trade unions. When Labour is in office, to oppose wage controls involves going much further politically. Moreover, as capitalism has been getting into deeper and deeper crisis, to fight for higher wages demands a challenge to the system. Opposing the Tories is one thing; there is an alternative – Labour. What is the alternative to Labour? In the absence of real forces ready to fight for a socialist alternative, militants follow the trade union leaders and comply with the social contract.

The miners did not escape the threat of the social contract, one product of which was the 1975 Plan for Coal. As Andrew Taylor put it: ‘The political function of this exercise was to secure the cooperation of the NUM, negating the possibility of industrial action.’ [119]

In the specific case of the miners, the main measure used to undermine their unity and weaken their ability to struggle was the introduction of the incentive scheme, a species of productivity deal. In September 1974 the NCB and representatives of the Executive of the NUM found common ground and Submitted details of a draft agreement on an incentive scheme. A ballot led to the rejection of the scheme by 61.53 per cent of the NUM members. But the government and the Coat Board were not ready to give up. Gormley, however, persevered, and, breaking the constitution of the union, the Executive in September balloted the rank and file once again in 1977, hoping this time to overrule the conference decision. The ballot took place, and again the majority (55.6 per cent) rejected the incentive scheme. But the NUM Executive then allowed separate areas to negotiate their own local incentive schemes, which Nottinghamshire and other areas rapidly proceeded to do. This, more than any other single factor, created the deep divisions in the union that took such a heavy toll in 1984-85. The seeds of the scabbing in that strike were, therefore, sown by the Labour government in 1977.

Blacklegging became respectable even earlier in other industries. In the shipyards:

Govan, the new name for three of the four former UCS yards (the fourthbeing Marathon), had been pioneers in the working of a joint union-management monitoring committee for a harsh productivity deal.

They signed a 31-point agreement containing elaborate no-strike pledges, massive concessions on work practices giving management the right to impose compulsory overtime. The agreement at Govan’s has since been used as the model of what British Shipbuilders hope to achieve throughout the industry ...

Govan reached the lowest depths when they scabbed on their Tyneside Swan Hunter brothers.

Management tiled to impose a declaration of intent on the Swan Hunter workers as a precondition for giving them a big proportion of a big Polish order. The Swan Hunter workers rejected it ...

When Swan Hunter workers blacked the Polish ships Jim Airlie rushed to take the job. The same Jim Airlie, one of the leaders of UCS in 1971, who asked at that time, ‘Are the other shipyards going to accept our orders and let my men starve?’

But by 1979, during the Swan Hunter dispute, he sang a new tune. ‘If Newcastle are losing six ships through disputes, we will build them. If not us, then the Japs will.’ [120]

Another example of how blacklegging became respectable comes from Longbridge, the biggest factory in BL, and for decades by far the most militant plant in the car industry. At the end of 1972 Measured Day Work replaced piece work in Longbridge. This significantly undermined the power of the shop stewards vis-à-vis the specific groups of workers they represented. In April 1975 Sir Don Ryder’s Report suggested joint management-union participation. The Report was welcomed by Bob Wright, the left leader of the AUEW, and the Longbridge factory leadership. A few months later the Senior Stewards accepted a three-tier system of participation. This was accompanied by an announcement that 12,000 jobs had to go by mid-1976. Now, instead of 7 full-time Senior Stewards, Longbridge got more than 50. A gap was created between them and the members. The Financial Times highly praised the attitude of the Longbridge Senior Stewards: one ‘example of the participation scheme’s effectiveness was the shop stewards’ willingness to sigma joint recommendation to car workers to cut out disputes and boost productivity ... When Mr Derek Whittaker, Leyland Cars Managing Director, warned last month during several disputes over pay differentials that “many thousands of jobs might disappear,” he was supported by Mr Derek Robinson.’ [121]

Derek Robinson, the Convenor of Longbridge and the Chairman of the BL Combine Committee, a leading member of the CP, was more profuse in his praise of ‘participation’ than anyone else. More and more he spoke as the partner of management. Thus, in an interview with the CP fortnightly, Comment, he stated that Longbridge suffered from ‘overmanning’, and complained that ‘we still haven’t won the conception amongst the broad masses of people on the shop floor that they’ve got a vested interest in efficiency no less than we have. It is one of our problems ... if we are able to make Leyland successful as a publicly-owned company, then it is self-evident that that will be a major political victory.’ [122]

Make BL successful! That was the theme of Derek Robinson’s speeches again and again. Under him the Longbridge Works Committee, instead of serving as a transmission belt for channelling workers’ demands upwards, came to serve the interests of the employers, transferring their orders downwards:

The impact of participation was to weaken shop-floor organisation materially in Longbridge, and, following this, to increase sectionalism, and, finally, make scabbing an official tactic. 2,365 toolmakers throughout BL went on a one month’s strike in February 1977 in support of a demand for separate bargaining rights and restoration of differentials. When the government threatened to sack the toolroom workers, Hugh Scanlon, President of the AUEW, declared that ‘this decision has the full backing of all the unions’. Robinson agreed and encouraged all workers to cross the toolroom workers’ picket.

In August 1978 the toolroom workers in BL’s SU Carburettor came out on strike. Again both union officials and the leadership of the BL Combine lined up with BL management.

The years of participation did terrible damage to shop floor organisation in BL. On 3 April 1977 the Combine called for a day’s strike on 20 April against the Social Contract. When it came to it, Longbridge worked fully with the exception of a delegation that went to a London lobby. As a matter of fact the total number of workers that came out on strike on that day was only 35,000 (dockers, shipyard workers, construction workers and motor vehicle workers in the main).

In January 1978 mass meetings were held protesting against the Edwardes’ plans for 12,500 redundancies. On 1 February, however, the majority of Senior Stewards and union officials decided to accept it. Then in November 1978 a strike called by Longbridge shop stewards’ committee against the government’s 5 per cent petered out without a murmur. On 10 September 1979 Michael Edwardes revealed a plan for a further 26,000 redundancies. Longbridge Senior Stewards decided Edwardes had gone too far. Edwardes, using the gap between the shop stewards and their members, and the support of the leadership of the Confed, went over the heads of the stewards and initiated a ballot, which simply asked workers, ‘Are you in favour of the Leyland survival plan?’ without even pretending to spell out what that meant. The workforce voted yes by 7 to 1.

Now Edwardes found it expedient to show everyone who was the boss. He did not need participation any more, since the shop organisation had been so weakened. On 19 October he sacked Derek Robinson. Even so, Longbridge was solid, and 57,000 workers came out on strike in BL as a whole, but the picket was small, and little effort made to spread the strike elsewhere. On 27 October the AUEW called off the strike, and Robinson himself backed down, leaving the shop floor terribly demoralised.

In short, the strength of the Longbridge workers’ organisation, which played a key role in supporting the miners in 1972, had atrophied disastrously by the time the 1984-85 strike started.

Two other examples of official scabbing by unions during the 1974-79 Labour government deserve mention: one, the March 1977 strike of 535 electricians, members of EEPTU in Port Talbot BSC plant, for higher pay, when the other 6,500 trade unionists, members of the AUEW, TGWU, etc. were instructed by their leadership to cross the picket line. This strike went on for over two months. The second example is the strike of 5,000 maintenance engineers in Heathrow (1 April to 27 April 1977) when 54,000 other trade unionists, members of TGWU, GMWU, EEPTU, etc. were instructed to cross the picket line.

And why did the power workers not help the miners in the 1984-85 strike as they did in 1972 and 1974? Here again the policy of the Labour government of 1974-79 was crucial. It weakened the power workers by a continuous, systematic closure of power stations.

On 17 October 1976 the ‘biggest ever’ closure programme was accepted by national union leaders: the total or partial closure of 48 stations by March 1977. 39 of the stations affected were coal-fired. As in introducing the incentive scheme in the mining industry in 1977, Energy Secretary Tony Benn played a central role in the closure of coal-fired power stations. In this way the Labour Party and the unions collaborated in the butchery of the power industry.

On coming to power Thatcher continued this policy. On’9 September 1980 further drastic cuts were announced – the closure Or mothballing of another 20 coal or oil-fired power stations. In September 1981 the loss of 1,700 jobs and further cuts at 21 plants Were announced. August 1982 brought the announcement of a further 7,000 job losses over the following two years. In October 1983 there was the announcement of a further 1,500 job losses. The unions complied with these cuts.

Thus the actions of the Labour government of 1964-70, and even more so the Labour government of 1974-79, with which the trade union leaders so loyally collaborated, sowed the seeds of division between miners and miners, and between striking miners and other workers, thus damaging the strike of 1984-85.

To say that the miners in the 1984-85 strike suffered badly from dependence on the trade union bureaucracy and from sectionalism both amongst themselves and within the class as a whole, does not imply that their defensive capability was small. On the contrary. When the miners faced the need to go on the offensive, i.e. to stop steel or power, they were paralysed by the above factors. But in a defensive situation, holding the strike in the pits, the impact of these factors was much smaller. Jack Taylor could prevent workers going to Orgreave by sending them to Nottinghamshire, but he could not as effectively prevent miners picketing their own pits. It is true that the striking miners were only a section of the class, but 130-140,000 miners is a very powerful section. Their determination, strengthened by the tight interrelation between pit, community and lodge, were really remarkable. There is not a symmetry between the strengths and weaknesses of miners when engaged in a defensive and an offensive struggle.

This does not free trade union leaders, whether Norman Willis or Terry Duffy, whether Jack Taylor or Ray Chadburn, from responsibility for the defeat of the miners. On the contrary, the very lack of independent rank-and-file initiative increases their responsibility. But the real question is why were they so much less able to stab the miners in the back in 1972? After all, Sam Bullough, the President of Yorkshire Area NUM in 1972, was far more of a right-wing reactionary than Jack Taylor. The EEPTU too gave support to the miners in the strikes of 1972 and 1974, but refused to do the same in 1984-85. Did this arise from Frank Chapple’s being more progressive than Eric Hammond? The individual leader is only one link in the total chain of events. And the trade union bureaucracy’s behaviour is always a product of the pressure of workers. The bureaucrats always vacillate between the working class and the bourgeoisie, although in decisive moments of history, if the proletariat challenges the social order, it always sides with the bourgeois state. Many trade union leaders blame workers’ inactivity on the rank and file. The trouble is that the activities of those same leaders strengthens the apathy and disorientation among workers.

This weakening of workers’ confidence is not inevitable.

The introduction of Measured Day Work, the establishment of full-time convenors, the integration of senior stewards into the union machine, worker-management participation, the incentive scheme in the mining industry, etc., are the products of the class struggle, and the role that conscious or semi-conscious individuals play in them are crucial. These results are, above all, the fruits of Labourism – of Labour governments and the loyalty of workers towards them.

When one studies the very long maturation of conditions that led to the massive class explosion of 1972, and then the decade that preceded and conditioned the defeat of the miners in 1984-85, one becomes aware that hitherto in Britain the tempo of molecular changes in the proletariat is very slow. This is rooted in the nature of the British labour movement.

Britain has the oldest industrial working class in the world, with a high level of union organisation, and very conservative social and political attitudes. The fact that for most of the nineteenth century British capitalism had practically a monopoly position meant that the capitalists were able to accommodate organised groups of skilled men. Although the craft unions, to achieve economic security, had again and again to fight bitter battles against the employers, when seen in a broad historical context, craft unionism inflicted grave damage on the whole working class, women and men alike. To the extent that it influenced the working class as a whole, it created a tradition of narrow-minded conservatism. Under its influence skilled workers felt no need to generalise the struggle or overthrow the system.

Sectionalism is deeply entrenched in the British labour movement. To give a couple of illustrations. While in Russia women were recruited into unions together with men from their inception, and in Germany women were recruited into the engineering union some two decades after its foundation, in Britain it required two world wars, with hundreds of thousands of women working in engineering, until in 1943 – 91 years after the foundation of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers – women were allowed into the union, and even then only into the newly created special section, Section 5.

Again, during the first world war, the most militant Clyde Workers’ Committee organised only the skilled engineers. Throughout the country the refrain against the call-up was: ‘Don’t take me. I’m in the ASE’.

Again and again British labour history was punctuated by short periods of radical militancy at an extremely high level, such as the 1889 strikes that established the New Unions, the ‘Labour Unrest’ of 1910-14, the first shop stewards’ movement during the first world war. Then sectionalism was muted. Thus in the founding of the dockers’ union in 1889 the engineers Tom Mann and John Bums played a crucial role. Similarly a middle-class woman, Eleanor Marx, served on the executive of the newly-founded male union of gas workers. Alas, after a short time, she found herself out of sympathy with the leadership which was turning conservative and narrow. Again, the militants in the Clyde Workers’ Committee fought against the ideas of craft elitism, and were groping towards a strategy of uniting all the workers in the engineering industry. But while the Clyde Workers’ Committee strove to become the vanguard of a broad class movement, it still included only skilled engineers. As Marx put it, ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’

The separation between economic struggle and politics – the core of reformism – dogged the New Unionism, the Labour Unrest’ and even the Clyde Workers’ Committee. While the individual members of the Committee, with a few exceptions, opposed the war, the Committee as such never engaged in anti-war activities. The government was able to isolate and destroy the Committee because it could not connect the economic struggle in the engineering industry with the wider struggle against the war. J.T. Murphy was no doubt correct when he wrote:

None of the strikes which took place during the course of the war were anti-war strikes. They were frequently led by men like myself who wanted to stop the war, but that was not the real motive. Had the question of stopping the war been put to any strikers’ meeting it would have been overwhelmingly defeated. [123]

To understand the general weakness of the British labour movement, the sectionalism, its backward politics, one can do no better than juxtapose it to the Russian labour movement under the Tsar. The Russian proletariat did not have established trade unions with armies of full-time officials, no powerful legal reformist party and no parliamentary system. The tendency towards sectionalism and the separation of economics and politics were very weak. As a matter of fact, both in 1905 and 1917 the Soviet – the form of organisation that unites the class as a whole – preceded the building of mass trade unions. Thus, for instance, in February 1917, there were only tiny trade unions in Petrograd, but within 6 months 390,000 Petrograd workers joined the unions. Then the city ‘had one of the highest levels of organisation in the world ... at least 90% of trade unionists in the city were members of industrial unions.’ [124]

The close link between economics and politics in the Russian labour movement was summed up in the words of one spokesman of the 1905 Soviet: ‘“Eight hours and a gun!” shall live in the heart of every Petersburg worker.’ [125]

Sectionalism, the separation of economic from political struggle, and the strength of the trade union bureaucracy, reflected the fact that sectional trade union organisation did manage to deliver over a long period, and that reformism did improve workers’ conditionswithin capitalism. However, what is of advantage in periods of capitalist stability becomes a serious impediment in times of capitalist crisis. Unfortunately at such times reformist organisations and ideas do not disappear, leaving the arena free for new institutions fitting the needs of the proletariat for an all-out class war. Even though reformism cannot protect the working class from the ravages of the crisis, if no credible revolutionary alternative is available, masses of workers will cling to reformist ideas for want of anything better.

Because of the inertia in the British labour movement, a long haul will be needed by socialists to build a net of socialist militants to fight sectionalism, fight the trade union bureaucracy, fight reformism. Marx’s words to German workers in 1850 are very apt:

You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power.’ [126]




82. Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations – the Donovan Report (London 1968), p.19.

83. M. Silver, Recent British Strike Trends: A Factual Analysis, British Journal of Industrial Relations, January 1973.

84. C. Crouch, The Intensification of Industrial Conflict in the United Kingdom, in C. Crouch and A. Pizzorno (eds.), The Resurgence of Class Conflicts in Western Europe Since 1968 (London 1978), p.253.

85. A. Taylor, The Politics of the Yorkshire Miners (London 1984), p.88.

86. Ibid., pp.176-8.

87. Allen, op. cit., p.156.

88. Ibid., pp.163-4.

89. Taylor, op. cit., p.309.

90. Ibid., p.67.

91. Ibid., p.178.

92. T. Cliff, The Employers’ Offensive (London 1970), p.209.

93. C. Barker, The Power Game (London 1972), p.34.

94. Ibid., pp.36-7.

95. Ibid., p.46.

96. Ibid., p.54.

97. Pitt, op. cit., pp.157-8.

98. S.W. Lerner and I. Marquand, Regional Variations in Earnings, Demand for Labour and Shop Stewards’ Combine Committees in the British Engineering Industry, Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies, September1963.

99. Department of Employment Gazette, May 1971.

100. Ibid., May 1972.

101. Health ancillaries were also important in May 1974 when they were joined by nurses, taking their first ever strike action, in an effort to secure a major improvement in pay. The strikes were quickly followed by an award which granted large increases. The teachers were involved in a very active campaign for the London Allowance, and this was followed by the highest award teachers had ever won – the Houghton Award of some 30 per cent.

102. Allen, op. cit., p.240.

103. Ibid., pp.247-8.

104. Taylor, op. cit., p.252.

105. Allen, op. cit., p.252.

106. Taylor, op. cit., p.252.

107. Ibid., p.254.

108. Financial Times, 27 February 1985.

109. A. Callinicos and M. Simons, The Great Strike (London 1985), p.158.

110. Ibid., p.156.

111. Ibid., Chapter 4.

112. Department of Employment Gazette, July 1982, July 1983, July 1984.

113. S. Brittan, The Treasury under the Tories, 1951-1964 (Harmondsworth 1965), p.276.

114. The Economist, 5 June 1965.

115. Ibid., 4 September 1965.

116. Donovan Report, op. cit., p.262.

117. W.W. Daniel and N. Millward, Workplace Industrial Relations in Britain (London 1983), p.37.

118. ‘... in 1978 there were some 3,500 full-time manual stewards in 1,800 manufacturing establishments, and some 300 full-time non-manual stewards in 160 manufacturing establishments.’ (W. Brown, The Changing Contours of British Industrial Relations (Oxford 1981), pp.65-6.)

119. Taylor, op. cit., p.268.

120. T Cliff, The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years, International Socialism 2:6, Autumn 1979, pp.3-4.

121. Financial Times, 7 May 1975.

122. Comment, 5 August 1978.

123. J.T. Murphy, New Horizons (London 1941), p.44.

124. S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd (Cambridge 1983), pp.104-9.

125. L. Trotsky, 1905 (New York 1971), p.186.

126. K Marx, Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne, in Marx-Engels, Collected Works, vol.11, p.403.


Last updated on 28.11.2006