From International Socialism (1st series), No.44, July/August 1970, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The recent strike of glassworkers at St Helens has clearly been one of the most significant seen in Britain in recent years. Not so much because of the size or length of the strike – 8,000 and more workers out for over six weeks without strike pay. Or even for the violence associated with the closing stages – with strikers given summary prison sentences by local magistrates only hours after being picked off the picket lines by police for minor offences. More important is the fact that the strike epitomises the growing revolt of what might be called the ‘organised-unorganised’ – that vast underbelly of British trade unionism, workers nominally in unions, but effectively without any real organised means for defending conditions and wages. It is these workers who have suffered most from five and a half years of ‘incomes policy’ and wage freezing.
The Pilkington workers were in the union that more perhaps than any other has contained such workers – the G&MWU. The structure of this union is notorious for denying even the most elementary democratic rights to the members. Officials only have to face election once in their lives – and even this follows two years of ‘temporary’ appointment to office. No candidate can stand for election unless he satisfies the National Executive (half the members of which are full-time officials) of his qualifications – to be determined at the ‘absolute discretion’ of that body. Any voting is normally by the branch on behalf of its members – but in the case of the larger branches, the branches are run by Administrative Officers appointed from above. In the smaller branches, the secretary is likely to be effectively full-time, because of a system by which he receives about 10 per cent cut of the dues collected and once elected cannot be removed from below. At St Helens only stewards were allowed to attend or vote at branch meetings. This effectively made the bureaucracy at the local level completely self-perpetuating – since the branch officials could veto the appointment of new stewards. Just to ensure full bureaucratic control against virtually any contingency, however, the G&MWU has rules that prevent communication between branches, except at conference, and which permit the Executive to intervene if dissent looks like gaining a foothold in any particular area. Thus in 1947 the London District Committee was reorganised, and prominent local officials of the union including a Labour MP expelled, after a strike at the Savoy Hotel.
The result of this structure in St Helens was simple: there had not been a strike among the process workers since 1926. Although these are not strictly speaking lower paid, it is the case that in order to get earnings approximating to the national average they have to accept working conditions – such as continual shift working, regular night and weekend working, high levels of overtime – that most organised workers in this country still resist. And certainly they suffered more from the wage freeze than is normally the case. One steward has given an estimate of 0.9 per cent as the average annual rise in money wages since 1964.
Despite this, however, the way the strike broke out was completely unexpected. Although occasional individuals had been prophesying some sort of blow-up at St Helens, no one could have predicted what actually happened. The first workers to strike did so to protest at a minor discrepancy in their wage packets. Only when they had actually stopped work and could begin to see their own strength did they give voice to a demand for a half a crown an hour wage rise and think of spreading the strike to other sections. Yet within days the whole of the St Helens works were solidly out. As the strike spread, so the demands escalated – to a £10 increase in basic rates.
The characteristic union reaction for the first couple of weeks was not so much open hostility to the strike as bungling incompetence. The old stewards did form a strike committee, which also included some militants. But after years of enjoying a privileged position in the factory (e.g., only having nominal work duties, so as to free them for ‘union duties’) they had no idea of how to act so as to either make the strike effective or to get the men back to work. So at one point early in the strike, when even some of the militants were prepared to support a return on tactical grounds, the tone with which the G&MWU speaker put the recommendation at a mass meeting was such as to ensure that the mass of workers voted against it.
The rank and file committee that emerged towards the end of the second week of the strike was by no means a body of pre-existing militants. Most of its members had no previous trade union or political experience. A few had some experience of local Labour politics, and only one had had some sort of contact with the revolutionary left. The CP had no direct influence, but one of its militants on a local building site exercised an indirect influence at some points. Despite all this, sections of the press did, of course, manage to see the whole as an IS and/or Maoist plot.
Nor should it be thought that the whole of the rank and file committee started off with an ingrained hatred or even distrust of the G&MWU officials. They established their committee so as to fill in obvious gaps in the existing, organisation – its failure to try and black goods or spread the strike, its failure to organise adequate collection of funds from trade unionists elsewhere, the refusal to pay strike pay, above all the hesitation in referring decisions to mass meetings. It was only when the union moved from half-hearted co-operation with the strikers to open hostility and scabbing (when the strike was about a fortnight old) that the rank and file committee began to move against the union.
The inexperience and lack of traditions of the strike leaders led them to make obvious mistakes. Although they exposed and discredited the union’s first attempt to hold a ‘secret ballot’, they assented to a second ballot, because they believed that workers who, aware of their collective strength at mass meetings were solid for the strike, would vote the same way in the isolation of their own homes. As it turned out, only obvious irregularities in the organisation of the ballot permitted the committee to prolong the strike after a minimal majority for a return to work. Even so, the strike was weakened, with the number of scabs rising to something approaching a quarter of the total labour force, and with the authorities now feeling free to harass and arrest pickets, send in mounted police and so on. Finally, the inexperience of the committee showed itself in the eventual return to work, on the basis of a paper agreement with the union and Feather of the TUC, that later proved to be next to worthless. At this point one of the best militants could still ask: ‘ If you can’t trust the head of the TUC who can you trust’? Now at least he should know.
Despite this, however, the rank and file committee still remains in a strong position inside the factory. Most of the workers have seen through the bureaucratic pretence of the G&MWU. In section after section the first act after the return to work was the holding of meetings to vote out the old stewards and elect new ones. The firm and the union, however, are refusing to recognise these and are insisting that they can only negotiate with the old stewards. Not only does the formal structure of the union prevent the rank and file carrying through any changes at the top: now it is denying them the most minimal representation at the shop floor level.
Elsewhere experience of this stifling bureaucratic rule has caused militants to lead workers out of the G&MWU into other unions. The best known such example was at Fords Halewood, where the members dissolved the G&MWU branch and later joined the T&GWU. The rank and file committee and Pilkington’s would like to follow this example. Four thousand men have already filled in forms telling the firm to stop deducting G&MWU dues from their wage packets. Ideally they would like to join the T&GWU, feeling that if this union does not positively encourage militancy, at least it is not often that it goes out of its way to prevent it. However, it is by no means certain that the T&GWU would accept the Pilkingtons men, thus breaking the Bridlington agreement in a firm where it does not have negotiating rights and opening itself up to a possible war for members right across industry.
The other alternative being considered by the rank and file committee is that of trying to start some sort of breakaway union. But here what precedents there are do not point in a very hopeful direction. From the United Clothing Workers’ Union in the early thirties to the ‘blue union’ in the Northern Ports in the fifties the problem has always been the same: how to survive without resources and against the hostility of the established union if the employer forces a recognition battle. Men who will gladly break with the existing reactionary union at the peak of a struggle over wages and conditions may not be as prepared to endure further hardship in the defence of new organisation. The danger is that a diminishing number of the more militant are left fighting alone, while the other workers drift back to the reactionary union or in non-unionism.
Yet these problems are ones that originate in the success of the St Helens struggle, not out of any defeat. For some of the consequences of the strike are already clear. Firstly, the oppressive paternalism of Pilkingtons has been smashed for once and for all St Helens will never be the same again. A dormant tradition of class solidarity, for years obscured beyond recognition, has been revived by the weeks of hardship and bitterness. Nor will the effects of this be just confined to St Helens. Until the Leyland strike of last year Central Lancashire was an area with few traditions of militancy and generally low wages. Now we are witnessing the spread of some of the aggressive rank and file trade unionism that has come to characterise nearby Merseyside since the dock strike of ’67.
More generally, the experience of St Helens could be repeated in situation after situation in the coming months. In a variety of industries workers who previously were only nominally trade unionists are beginning to discover the possibility of taking action to improve their lot. Hence both the size of current wage demands – the fairly general slogan at present being ‘five pounds now’! – and also the changing pattern of strikes, as they become longer and more bitter. It is precisely such disputes
that should provide the revolutionary left with the greatest scope for intervention. For militants without experience have to learn about the realities of life in class society – and only the revolutionary left has anything to say about these. In St Helens workers who were still far from being revolutionaries would praise Socialist Worker, (and no doubt other revolutionary papers they saw then) because it alone told them the truth about their own experiences. And this will be even more the case if the predicted reversion to governmental policies of freezing and clamping down wage levels does take place in the autumn.
Finally, even the G&MWU monolith cannot forever remain immune to the heat being generated below. The past bureaucrat-isation of the union was not just a product of the corruption of its leaders; it also corresponded to the backwardness and lack of militancy of the mass of the membership. There was never a group of workers comparable to the London busmen or the dockers in the T&GWU of Deakin’s time. Typically, the last challenge to the union leadership from rank and file militancy concerned the notoriously difficult to organise hotel industry (in 1947). After all, the St Helens branch, the second largest in the union, had never caused the union leadership any trouble before, and was in fact Lord Cooper’s own branch. Now, however, in a dozen different industries the ‘general workers’ are beginning to stir. The entrenched bureaucracy, with a constitution designed to prevent membership control, can of course sit tight, expelling dissident stewards, reorganising branches and so on. But the price it will have to pay will be a further erosion of a membership that has already declined considerably since the early fifties, and ever-increasing resentment below. Nor can it be fully satisfied with its own performance in situations like the Pilkingtons one. For even the employers will complain about a union so ailienated from its membership as to be unable to control their actions at all. Hence it is possible that within the ranks of the G&MWU bureaucracy itself the pressures will grow for some restructuring to correspond to the needs of a new situation. Although this would involve bureaucratic adaption, not moves towards democratic control of the union, accompanying inter-bureaucratic conflicts might provide long-term opportunities for genuine rank and file intervention.
Last updated on 17 November 2009