Chris Harman


Steel: Behind the Picket Lines

(February 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 2, 17 February–15 March 1980, pp. 21–24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Commenting on a strike in progress is a most foolhardy thing for a monthly publication. By the time it reaches the readers’ hands the strike might be decisively won or decisively lost and the comment look ridiculous. Nevertheless, we could hardly let this issue of the Review pass without saying something about the organisation of the strike, for it is clearly one of the most important struggles waged by workers in this country for some time.

The safe bet, back before Christmas, was to say that the strike would be passive, demoralised and very easily beaten. The Tory press claimed that the strike would be an asset for British Steel, since they would be able to close down their loss-making plants for several weeks. In Yorkshire and South Wales and Teesside, many steel workers did not even bother to consider what they would do in the strike, since they assumed that Bill Sirs, the leader of the main steel union, would call the whole thing off at the last minute.

Yet the strike which began on the 2nd of January was the most militant and most active since the miners’ strike of 1972. Nightly the television screen showed pickets boasting that they were ‘secondary’ or even ‘tertiary’ pickets. Local strike committees openly repudiated the promises made by union officials to private steel employers and stockholders. By the third week of the strike the government, although by no means defeated, was visibly wavering in its decision to see things through to the end:

The Observer told on 20 January ‘How Margaret came back from the brink’, claiming that ‘the government now wants to settle the steel strike as quickly as possible’, while The Financial Times noted that ‘A number of Sir Keith’s colleagues say that he has not helped the situation by his dogmatic approach’.

How did this all come about? Why did a union which has not called an official strike for more than 50 years suddenly do so? How did rank and file militancy suddenly emerge in an industry dominated for much longer than that by a stifling, right wing bureaucracy? How did the strikers come to organise themselves? What were their successes and failures?

We talked to steel workers and SWP members active around the strike in its most militant area, Sheffield, in order to find some answers to these questions.

Background to the strike

The main steel union, the ISTC, has been probably the most right wing of right wing unions for decades. It had no official strike action for more than 50 years. Right up until the second world war, its whole approach to wages was based upon forming a joint national committee with management to monitor steel prices and tie wages directly to them. Instead of paying for officials to negotiate wages, the members were paying for accountants to study price movements!

Under nationalisation the union has accepted all forms of collaboration and participation.

No room was left within the structure of the union for any rank and file organisation beyond the individual branch – and each section within a single plant was a separate branch. It was not allowed for the representatives of one section of a plant to meet the representatives of another section and decide on joint action. The most basic solidarity was ruled out.

The only form of liaison between branches allowed was through ‘joint branch committees’ which had no decision making power. They were always attended by a full time official who would make sure such powers were not exercised. So one section of a works could not take joint action with another section without first getting official support from the national leadership.

This did not mean that there were no strikes. Even the steel industry could not quite achieve this managerial utopia. A good branch secretary could use occasional industrial action or the threat of it to force up the wages of his own section. So, a few years back, the union’s annual report could refer to 380-odd strikes taking place in a year. This provided a certain safety valve for the union bureaucracy when it came to buying off discontent, although it did not stop them telling any striking section to return to work immediately. What was ruled out completely was any possibility of an adjoining section linking into such action. The only link between the different branches had to be the national bureaucracy. Indeed, until the early 1970s, even the most elementary link that exists in other unions, a national conference, did not exist.

Whenever rank and file steel workers began to agitate against this state of affairs, the union connived with management to get them sacked. This happened to many militants in South Wales in the 1930s; it happened to eight branch officials in Corby in 1962; just before the recent strike a branch secretary at the Stocksbridge works, near Sheffield, Brian Molyneux, was sacked for allegedly attending an ‘unofficial’ trade union meeting during lunchtime; another Sheffield branch secretary, Joe Herbertson, was also sacked at the same time.

In the course of the strike itself, the union has promised disciplinary action against a full time official in the Sheffield area, for saying in public he was going to ignore Sirs’ instruction to moderate picketing.

Against such a background, any movements to reform the union have rapidly come to nothing. The most recent, at last year’s conference, was smashed after Sirs denounced it to the conference as an ‘International Socialist’ front (even though the organisers had tried to ward off this allegation by keeping SWP members out of their meetings).

Yet even this tightly-policed right wing was forced to take strike action. Why?

An SWP member in Sheffield who has studied the union for many years explains:

‘You have to look at the way the Steel Corporation did an about-turn on their expansion programme, cutting by 50 per cent what they previously planned to produce. They planned to produce 30 million tonnes; now they are cutting back to 15 million. They want to wipe out half the labour force – more than half if you look closely at the productivity targets they talk about. To make 15 million tonnes at a productivity of 250 tonnes a man means getting rid of 100,000 workers out of 180,000.

‘But the Corporation cannot do that without smashing the union. For, however reactionary it is, it still has powers to negotiate the things the corporation wants to negotiate, like the complete closure of works, the introduction of complete flexibility throughout, the breakdown of all demarcation lines between jobs.

‘So the corporation made a deliberately insulting pay offer – aimed at humiliating the union.

‘That is why the union activists – even ones who always put up with Sirs in the past – are so bitter. The BSC had promised them all sorts of things with the huge investment scheme here. They promised them that their jobs would be secure, that conditions would be good, that wages would be good. And none of that has turned out. For years and years people went along with what management wanted – the productivity programmes, the job participation schemes, works councils, worker directors, even collaborating in works chaplaincy schemes. All this involved the activists in the branches for decades, and suddenly it’s all nothing. It’s only led them to the lowest of low wage offers and the least secure jobs. It’s no wonder there is a feeling of bitter betrayal by management.’

The bitterness translated itself into a mass, spontaneous upsurge of enthusiasm the moment the strike started. As one SWP worker explains:

‘What we underestimated in advance was the enthusiasm for the strike. Take for instance my works, the Shepcote Lane works. What happened on the first day of the strike was that people turned up at the gates, as if they were going to work, and started picketing. The enthusiasm of the blokes especially from Rotherham, meant that if you’d gone along Attercliffe Common – the road from Sheffield to Rotherham – you’d have seen pickets at all the engineering factories, and they were 24 hour pickets, maintained over the weekend. Their presence cause a complete furore inside the factories. At Edgar Allen’s foundries they turned away all the sand, and it was going to close. At Shardlows they turned back the bread and meat vans, so the canteen couldn’t operate!’

A white collar worker in the industry makes the same point:

‘What has characterised the strike, not having any traditions, is pure enthusiasm. We’ve been battling away with our heads against a brick wall for rank and file organisation for a long time, and suddenly the response from the rank and file is unbelievable.’

It was this which caused Sirs finally to issue the call for the private sector to come out.

‘Sirs has been under fantastic pressure because of what’s been happening in South Yorkshire. Take for instance Simpson’s; a BSC subsidiary in Manchester. The Stocksbridge people went to Simpson’s to stop the movement of steel there. It’s in another Division of the union, and the ISTC Divisional Officer comes along and says, “This is our territory, you’ve got no right to be here.” The lads simply replied, “We’re not leaving until you’ve got the pickets to take over.” It is this sort of attitude around the country, with people prepared to break all the rules, that has put tremendous pressure on Sirs.’

The degree of active involvement in the strike varies enormously from area to area. But even in the weak areas the numbers picketing has been much higher than in strikes in traditionally militant industries.

One SWP member explains it like this:

‘They’ve never been involved in such strikes before. They’ve only ever seen strikes on television where the emphasis is on the picketing and they think that going on strike means mass picketing.’

It’s an amazing example of combined and uneven development of consciousness. A most backward group of workers learning a technique from the most advanced groups and raising it to a higher level.

The organisation of the strike

The organisation of the strike varies enormously from place to place. Even in the Sheffield area you can find examples of weak organisation as well as the most marvellous. But what seemed to characterise it everywhere in the first days was the complete loss of control by the old right wing officials.

The need to prepare for the strike and then to run it, threw to the fore the one thing the union bureaucracy had always stopped in the past – direct collaboration between the branches for the different sections within the plants. The previously impotent joint branch committees suddenly took on a new life and were transformed into strike committees which were able to ignore the officials.

‘With the preparation for the strike, the joint committees began gradually to assert their authority independently of the full timers. The structure was already there. You had the officers of the different branches within a works, meeting together on a regulat monthly or quarterly basis as a joint committee. As soon as the knowledge came that there was going to be a strike, they suddenly got up and said, “We’re taking over the running of it”. When the strike started, they moved into the full timers’ offices.’

One of the steel workers tells what it’s like in the divisional union office in Rotherham:

‘Go into the offices where the strike committee are very very busy. And Joe Pickles, the divisional organiser who used to be the man who ran the union in South Yorkshire, is sat in another room, on his own, irrelevant to the strike.

‘He did sign a few dispensations, but the pickets wouldn’t have anything to do with them. They said that only the strike committee could authorise such things.’

The only official who has any influence over the committees is a left Labour organiser, Keith Jones.

The South Yorkshire strike committees developed a sort of pyramid structure. At the base were the local works’ joint committees, one each for Stocksbridge, Rotherham and Scunthorpe. And above them was the divisional committee. In the case of Rotherham there were also three strike committees for each works in Rotherham.

The committees tended to be made up from those of the people who had been active in the union before the strike who took the initiative in the organisation of it. With only a couple of exceptions they were not politically involved, although some had been involved in the pressure to reform the union, and many are very much influenced by Arthur Scargill of the Yorkshire miners. As one SWP member points out:

‘They invited Callaghan to address the big rally in Sheffield, although he didn’t come. At the same time, however, they’re very friendly to us. They read and respect Real Steel News and our meetings are advertised in the strike offices.’

The links between the committees and the active section of the rank and file are quite close. The thing that socialists normally demand in strikes, but rarely get – regular mass meetings – seem to be taken very much for granted in Rotherham and Stocksbridge.

However, some very important weaknesses had revealed themselves by the second week.

The first was that nothing like the same level of active involvement had occurred in Scunthorpe as in Rotherham and Stocksbridge. The proportion of pickets was much smaller, there were not the regular mass meetings, and the strike committee seemed more influenced by the officials.

In Rotherham a different problem arose. The Divisional Strike Committee, although still quite independent of the right wing officials, showed signs of losing contact with the rank and file. One SWP member saw it like this:

‘The strike committee is tending to get bogged down in the sort of work that the officials or their office staff ought to do; for example, they have been organising a meticulous mailing system to send out to all branches affiliated to the trades council with collection sheets – a lot of envelope licking – whereas what they ought to be doing is going round factory shop stewards’ committees and speaking at factory canteens.’

Another saw it like this:

‘It is much more bureaucratised than the local committees. But inside that building there’s a lot of different things going on. The bit you see is more bureaucratised. A load of people rushing round, not quite knowing what to do, people coming in and out. That’s where employers go for dispensations, it’s where the press and the TV go. It’s so busy, you get the feeling of people running themselves off their feet and probably accomplishing very little. There’s almost a sense of unreality up there.

‘But what you don’t notice unless you actually know the blokes is that inside there, there are area strike committees covering the Rotherham works. While the Divisional Strike Committee has been worried about having their heads chopped off – handing out dispensations when they shouldn’t, pulling pickets off places and demoralising them – the local Rotherham strike committee has been very solid, very quiet, doing an effective job. Every decision is weighed up for the effects it will have on the morale of the pickets. They know there is nothing more frustrating than to be on the point of closing a place down and then to be told to lift the picket.’

The Stocksbridge strike committee has been an example of how a strike should be organised. You enter its office and you are immediately struck by the sense of order and purpose. On the walls are a dozen notices detailing picket destinations, pick-up points and times: as well as a notice for a steel workers’ public meeting and a Hospital Worker social for the strike fund. Every three or four minutes the phone rings; a report from a picket line in Blackburn, a wife who wants to know whether her husband is out picketing today, an offer of some coke for the pickets’ braziers. Each call is meticulously logged in a notebook – a quick read of the book shows you the successes and the problems of the pickets in a dozen parts of the country. On one of the desks is a number of typed sheets; a closer look reveals a numbered list of picket-volunteers, complete with addresses and phone numbers; the list contains more than 2000 names. Next to it are shorter lists, with perhaps a dozen names and phone numbers on each: the pickets due to go out tonight. Someone comes in: ‘I’ve got 30 lads eager to go out and shut somewhere!’ – ‘We can’t send you until after the weekend; we haven’t got the money for the petrol.’

Half an hour later in the welfare hall which is the main strike headquarters in Stocksbridge. A dozen or so men come in, and stand around for five minutes – middle-aged men in fur-lined Wellingtons; a couple of greaser types with leathers and quiffs. Then one of the strike committee reads out a list. It’s like being in the army, or at school. Each man answers his name. One of the drivers takes the list and signs it. He is given petrol money, while the men file out, each being handed his ‘snap’, a packet of sandwiches, as he goes. They are off to Blackburn in the minibus. Now a group come in and the procedure is repeated: they’re for Manchester. Three or four sheets of Melt the Iron Lady stickers go with them. An SWP member involved in the picketing has described how this almost military level of organisation developed:

‘We started out with something of an advantage in Stocksbridge, because the melting shop had been out on strike since 7 December over the sacking of the branch secretary, Brian Molyneux. There had never been any sort of militant tradition in Stocksbridge, but the melting shop strikers had to learn to organise and to picket. That meant that when the national strike came on 2 January we had a hard core with some experience, who could teach others how to picket, how to stop a waggon and talk to the lorry driver.

‘The people involved in the Molyneux strike carried the picket line for the first couple of days. Then they got a mass meeting together, took the names and phone numbers of volunteers, phoned them up and got them going out. It’s not a case of people just turning out. They get a phone call: ‘Do you want to picket at such and such a place tomorrow?’

‘The high proportion of the pickets has a lot to do with the location – the fact that Stocksbridge is built around the works. You’ve got the valley with the works on one side, the population on the other. You walk down the road from your house and you’re at the works’ gate. You go out to do the shopping and you go past the strike offices. But it’s also got todo with the telephone list, which means you can get in touch with people. We’ve got people from the works who live in Sheffield or Barnsley picketing.’

If the whole of the country were like Stocksbridge, the strike would soon have been won. Unfortunately it is not. We have already seen some of the weaknesses in the organisation. These weaknesses occur in a strike that has faced some major problems.

The comparison that leaps to mind when looking at the steel strike is the miners’ strike of 1972. That, too, was said by the press to be doomed in advance. In that strike as well, it was the rapid build up of flying pickets that falsified such forecasts. It is quite likely that there have actually been more pickets active in the steel strike than there were in the 1972 strike. However, they have had to face greater objective difficulties than the miners did.

The miners could concentrate on about 200 power stations and a relatively small number of large coal and coke depots. The steel workers, by comparison, have been faced with about 2000 steel stockholders and, in the first month of the strike, a plethora of private steel firms producing more than a quarter of the industry’s output. So although the picketing seems to have been fairly effective where it has occurred, there have been many outlets for steel not easily touched. Then there is another problem not seriously faced by the miners. Often the pickets are asking a firm’s own lorry drivers not to go through its gates – effectively they have been asking other people to come out on strike in solidarity with them, not always an easy thing to get.

Finally, the question of cash has also been a problem. The union nationally is very wealthy, with assets of £11 million. But it has been hanging tightly on to these, and local strike committees have been having to raise their own funds. And here their lack of experience has been a hindrance. They have not had any tradition of going to other industries to raise regular amounts of money, and often have merely sent collection sheets or letters without insisting on speaking to the stewards and the shop floor. For example, the secretary of one engineering combine in Sheffield tells how three times he visited the strike committee in Rotherham, offering to introduce them to stewards, and each time his offer was not taken up. Yet the sending out of the flying pickets alone is costing hundreds of pounds a week, for the best strike committees.

The lack of experience of the strikers has been exploited both by their own leadership and by other bureaucratic elements in the trade union movement so as to weaken the strike.

This was most obviously so after the first week of the strike. The activism of the pickets caused consternation to Bill Sirs, who was already trying to do a deal with the Corporation and the government around productivity payments. He encouraged local officials to give dispensations to private steel, which demoralised strikers who had made great efforts to picket firms to a standstill.

The strike committees which were close to the pickets saw the damage being done and ignored the dispensations. Their slogan was ‘No Steel Moves’.

It was then that a different force came into play. In Sheffield the spontaneous pickets had hit many engineering factories. Inside the factories the stewards and convenors were often quite upset – for, in their inexperience the pickets had not thought to tell trade unionists inside the factories what they were doing. Unfortunately, at this point the CP-controlled engineering union district committee came forward with exactly the wrong response. Instead of explaining to its stewards that they had to bear with the pickets, as the only quick way to win a crucial dispute, it tried to pressurise the strike committee into withdrawing some of the pickets.

This pressure came just as the ISTC bureaucracy was applying similar pressure against the picketing of private steel plants like Hadfields. Instead of stepping up the scale of the pickets, the Divisional Strike Committee retreated, fearing it was becoming isolated from the rest of the country. The momentum of the picketing weakened a little – just as newspaper reports first began to indicate that the government was getting worried by the strike.

Examples like this show how, even in an inspiring, enthusiastic strike like the steel one, the spontaneous initiatives of people need to be complemented by revolutionary organisation, capable of spreading the experiences of the best areas like Stocksbridge to the weaker areas, and capable of arguing against every concession to the union bureaucracy. It is because such organisation has not existed in more than the most embryonic form in South Yorkshire that, as this article is written, the outcome of the strike is still in doubt.

Last updated on 20 September 2019