Chris Harman


Testing ground

(April 1978)

From Socialist Review, No.1, April 1978, pp.10-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Seven or eight years ago people on the left used to talk about Merseyside as the ‘Petrograd’ of Britain. It was the greatest centre of the militancy that broke through the last Labour government pay policy in 1969-70 and rocked the Tory government in 1972.

The Liverpool dustmen, the Liverpool dockers, the Merseyside building workers’ movement, the Pilkington strike in St Helens, Fords Hailwood, the Wigan and North Wales builders, the Fisher Bendix occupation, the Lancashire gas workers ... the list seems virtually endless – particularly when you add on top of it the succession of one day stoppages and demonstrations over the Industrial Relations Act and unemployment to a large extent inspired by Liverpool trades, council.

Today, Liverpool presents a different image. The image of the employers’ offensive 1978. It is a city where unemployment is already an average of 12 per cent – and much, much higher in the industrial suburbs built in the 1950s – Speke, Kirkby, Huyton, Skelmersdale.

The biggest pool of unemployed teenagers in Northern Europe. Shop after shop boarded up for protection against the vandalism and petty crime bred by poverty and boredom.

Now in the last couple of months, the great companies with factories in the area have announced a new wave of redundancies – 3,000 jobs to go at Leyland Speke, 450 at Birds Eye, 670 at English Electric, 160 in Cammel Lairds, 200 at Kirkby design centre; there are even sackings threatened on the buses.

But these are often not just redundancies. They are redundancies with a particular aim in view – the decimation of shop floor organisation.

Callaghan admitted as much in a statement that received front page treatment in the local press:

‘Premiere James Callaghan last night bluntly told Merseyside to pull its socks up – and stop going on strike: ‘The government, he declared, had not written off Merseyside, but he pleaded with the area to help itself by creating permanent industrial peace.

‘Mr Callaghan said industrial peace would remove the aura around Merseyside. His tough warning at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party was met with a rumble of approval from MPs.’

The threat of mass sackings and factory closures if workers maintain a level of militancy is not new. It is the oldest bluff in the business.

The 1971 Ford Strike was accompanied by dire warnings of the closure of Dagenham. And if Leyland workers had had a wage increase for every threat against Cowley or Longbridge, they would be very well paid indeed.

The difference in Liverpool is that for the first time major companies are translating their words into deeds.

Leyland blazed the trail when they responded to the long strike in the Leyland No.2 plant with a notice that they were going to shut it in a few months time.

We don’t know whether Callaghan himself was directly involved in that decision. But it certainly gave a lead that big private employers in Unilever, owners of Birds Eye, were prepared to follow.

They laid off the whole workforce (predominantly in the TGWU) when the AUEW members struck over wages. And then they insisted that no-one would be allowed back into the factory except on the basis of a nine-point plan for increased productivity, no wage increases for the engineers and 450 redundancies. On top of that they announced the sacking of the whole workforce.

Although they later withdrew this last threat in return for an end of the strike, they have kept to the nine point plan and the 450 redundancies.

A number of other Merseyside factories have been closed following a similar, though usually less obvious, strategy. In Birds Eye there is the demand for productivity without a deal: elsewhere the ‘self-financing’ productivity deal is being pushed through to weaken organisation and destroy jobs: for instance, in the print, where SOGAT have agreed to filling of vacancies or replacement of those who leave the industry; or in Dunlops where a number of jobs have been sold for wage increases over recent months.

Overall there is the combination of the repeated ideological left-jab – the message especially from the government and the local press that ‘Merseyside is going down the drain because of strikes’ followed by the right hook from the employers.

You can’t help getting the feeling that a number of big companies are testing the ground in Merseyside, seeing if they can get away with the sort of belligerent offensive against basic shop floor organisation that they have not dared to try with any sizeable plant anywhere for many years.

If they succeed in Liverpool, then there is little doubt they will try somewhere else.

After all, it is not as if the myth of ‘militant Merseyside’ has really been matched by reality in recent years.

There was a perceptible downturn in the level of struggle in the area after the mid-1970s, brought about by the defeat of the Halewood workers in a long strike against the victimisation of a senior steward in 1971, the run-down of the docks, the scourge of unemployment on the buildings and internecine struggles inside the Dunlops stewards’ committee.

Since then the level of strikes has been lower than in, say, Coventry. The strike which was alleged to have provoked the Leyland No.2 shutdown was the first to hit the whole plant for at least 10 years.

The level of steward organisation has not, perhaps, been ravaged by the involvement of convenors and senior stewards in ‘participation schemes’ as much as in many other parts of Britain. In both Leyland Speke and Ford Hailwood the stewards retain a higher than usual degree of ‘mutuality’ (control over the speed of the track).

But a gap has opened up between the stewards and the ordinary union members that the employers have been only too happy to exploit: in the Triumph strike there was not one mass meeting. It was a

classic case of the stewards’ ‘picketing out’ their own members.

At the end of the strike one senior steward confessed that they needed the return to work, so that the workers could get some money together before the next struggle, over the closure. The Birds Eye strike revealed much better organisation. There was the very uncommon sight of laid-off workers and unemployed workers joining the pickets.

There were weekly mass meetings. Wives and husbands were involved in the struggle. Flying pickets were sent round the other Birds Eye factories.

This all rested on an already existing high level of steward organisation among the laid off TGWU members. Yet at the end of the day, splits between the AUEW and TGWU members were very much behind the return to work.

Yet there remain very real chances of a fight-back in the city. What developed during the upsurge of militancy in the later sixties and early seventies was a pool of workers in the city who are best described as ‘militant syndicalists’.

They had an ability to lead struggles and to articulate socialist ideas rarely found elsewhere in England. But they saw little reason in practice to go beyond the shop stewards’ organisation, the union branch and perhaps the trades council in the direction of revolutionary organisation.

The result is that there are still hundreds or even thousands of workers who have lived through and learnt from some of the great struggles of the last 10 years: on the docks, in the buildings, in Pilkingtons, in the Fisher Bendix occupation, and so on. What they lack is a political answer to the ideological attack and a confidence that they have the organisational strength to fight back.

The employers’ offensive is pushing politics on to the Merseyside shop floor. Stewards need to have some answer to the drivel about ‘strikes running down Merseyside’.

Yet their own ideas are often still limited to talk about Temporary Employment Subsidies – even if there has been a change over the last year, in that they no longer look to the boss (who’s putting the boot in within the factory) to hold their hands when they beg for government money.

A blind hatred of the management is growing among many groups of workers and an awareness that political governmental answers are needed. The confusion is about what those answers could be and how to get them.

The same can be said of the organisational confidence of workers. They know that the old forms of organisation centred on one plant or even one workshop are not good enough when faced with an offensive from a major company.

Unilever, for instance, can afford to sit out a long strike. At the same time many of the workers have memories of the comparative success of the Fisher Bendix operation despite all the murkiness of the deals setting up a ‘workers’ cooperative’, the factory is still there, employing as many workers as ever.

The mood is one of increased political discussion, but still confused political discussion, of increased anger and frustration, but still undirected anger and frustration. It is a mood that could change very rapidly in a positive direction if for instance one factory was to carry through an occupation it might well arouse widespread enthusiasm.

One thing noticeable at the mass meeting which ended the Leyland Speke strike was the widespread sympathy for a token picket of some 20 unemployed.

Liverpool is a testing ground for the employers. It should also be a testing ground for the revolutionary left.

We have been used, in the past, to growing in periods of rising working class struggle (in 1972, in 1973-74, in the period leading up to the firemen’s strike last year).

We know we have to learn to relate to the bitter, long defensive struggles in resistance to the new employers’ offensive. Liverpool could be a picture of the future for many other areas.

Last updated on 7 May 2010