Paul Foot & Jim Higgins

Rank and file movement:
the first links are forged

(April 1974)

From Socialist Worker, 6 April 1974.
Reprinted in In the Heat of the Struggle: 25 Years of Socialist Worker, Socialist Worker/Bookmarks, London 1993, pp.115-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE ENORMOUS response to the first National Rank and File Conference for trade unionists surprised even the organising committee. More than 500 delegates were signed in at Birmingham.

Conference chairman Will Fancy, a member of the government officers’ union executive (NALGO) and supporter of the rank and file paper NALGO Action, said more than 300 trade union bodies had applied for delegacies.

These included 40 shop stewards’ and combine committees, two strike and occupation committees, 19 trades councils, seven district committees of unions. There were 239 from trade union branches and chapels: 58 from Engineering, 38 from Transport, seven from Construction, 16 from print unions, five from miners’ lodges, 20 from the supervisors union ASTMS, 14 from the public employers, 22 from NALGO, eight from the civil servants and 32 from teachers’ associations.

Said Will Fancy: “The rank and file must be organised. Constant vigilance to control the trade union leadership and militant policy are essential if we are not to lose out. We have got to coordinate rank and file activity across trade and industrial boundaries.”

LARRY CONNOLLY, shop steward at Lucas Birmingham, moved the first section of the resolution, on the fight against employers’ and government attacks on trade union rights. Larry is on strike and had to be released from picket duties to speak at the conference.

In a powerful speech he outlined the economic background of a predicted £5,000 million balance of payments deficit:

We face cutback, rationalisation, redundancy and lower living standards. By the end of the year one million unemployed are planned. Unemployment is a powerful weapon of the employers to demoralise the workers and the trade unions.

The Industrial Relations Act was still on the statute book. Phase Three still held force and the Pay Board was with us, just as under the Tories.

“We need a rank and file movement to fight the proven treachery of the officials,” he said. “If we do this the employers will tremble in their boots. The working class will not be hammered.”

An emergency resolution was moved by FRANK HENDERSON (Sheet Metal Workers’ shop steward at British Leyland): “This conference sends a message of solidarity to Lucas strikers and resolves to send a delegation to the picket line.”

This was carried unanimously and six delegates carried the message to the Lucas strikers.

MIKE BRIGHTMAN (Cricklewood AUEW) told the conference: “All industrial legislation, Labour or Tory, presents a sinister picture. Even under a Labour government we still have conspiracy laws. The Shrewsbury lads are still in jail.”

GEOFF WOOLF (Lewisham NALGO) said:

When it comes to the crunch the Labour government will be no different from any other We often hear that a voluntary incomes policy is better than a statutory policy. Well I for one am not volunteering and neither will my branch.

We should use this new movement to fight Phase Three and whatever follows. We will not permit the trade union leader to do the job for the government that repressive laws could not do.

MIKE MARRIOT (South Norwood ASTMS) said: “We have just spent three years fighting the Tories. With a Labour government we must be prepared to fight even harder.”

In a rousing contribution HUGH KERR (North London Polytechnic ATTI) said: “On the government’s own figures, living standards will be cut by at least 10 percent. We must reject the philosophy that rent freeze and increased old age pensions can be exchanged for a cut in wages. We want the rent rises reversed and the Housing Finance Act withdrawn,” he said to applause.

We are going to see the finest examples of class collaboration when the trade union leaders lie down for the Labour government.

We must involve ourselves in every sphere and level of the trade unions. We have to make it clear they cannot collaborate in the cutting of our living standards.

This theme was emphasised by JOHN WORTH (Coventry AUEW) who said district committees and trades councils became inactive because “we don’t fight for them and give them the fighting spirit.”

JOHN MAGEE (TGWU Holloway Bus Branch): “We will help Heath if we do not give support to Labour. Otherwise we will dig our own graves. The most important thing is to get a majority Labour government.” He concluded by appealing to Engineering leader Hugh Scanlon and train drivers’ leader Ray Buckton to cooperate with Labour

It was clear that a large majority of delegates were opposed to the views of John Magee, but as a delegate said at the lunch break a genuine rank and file movement must take account of and patiently explain the reasons why the Holloway bus delegate’s views would disarm the trade unions. Such views form the thinking of a great number of workers.

FRANK DRAIN (UCATT, Edinburgh) asked: “What happens after this conference? I think we must take this resolution back to the factories and workshops and really fight for it.”

DAVE ADSHEAD (shop steward, Bryant’s city centre development Birmingham) spoke angrily of the obstruction of union officials on the Shrewsbury campaign. Militants in Birmingham had argued for a rank and file committee with a programme of leaflets, meetings and action. Building union officials refused for fear of embarrassing the Labour Party.

They worked actively against the holding of meetings. There were no leaflets. Of course we must work in the official union structure, but we have also got to organise mass pressure to keep full-time officials in line.

The way forward now

THE FINAL part of the conference resolution dealt with the work which had to be done to carry the rank and file movement forward.

An amendment moved by JOHN CLOSSACK (NUT) calling for a general newsletter for the movement was clearly defeated after PETE GLATTER, a London busman, had called for more specific organisation around rank and file papers.

FRANK HENDERSON (British Leyland, Longbridge) said that it was the job of all the delegates to involve everyone on the shop floor in the sale and production of their rank and file paper

Although he liked organising secretary Roger Cox and admired his hairstyle (laughter), the Carworker would be useless if it was all written by Roger.

“We want to have workers reading it during their lunch hours,” said Frank. “We want to see them jumping up, spitting a mouthful of blood and saying: ‘Right, I’m going to write off and let that bastard know what I think’.”

STEVE ABBOTT (NUM Calverton Lodge) said all the delegates had to go back to their trade union branches and fight against the backward leadership of the trade unions.

STEVE LUDLAM (Hospital worker) said that the conference had meant a great deal to him.

Last year, after six weeks’ struggle, we hospital workers lost our claim. We had no support. Many of us asked why-why had we been sold out.

We’ve found since then that there’s more to a rank and file movement than determination. We’ve got to organise callously to win.

More than 100,000 trade unionists bought one or other of the rank and file papers which had called the conference. That figure had to be doubled and trebled, he said.

An additional resolution moved by GEORGE BARCLAY (GMWU branch at Stanton Works of the British Steel Corporation) called for more specific commitment on racialism, abortion, contraception and expropriation. It was defeated by more than two to one after KEN HUME (TGWU, Coventry) asked conference to concentrate on the minimal demands which could unite the maximum number of rank and ffle trade unionists.

JIMMY McCALLUM (TASS/AUEW convenor, John Brown Engineering, Glasgow) said that the election of a Labour government had not changed the struggle against Phase Three. In fact, the co-operation of trade union leaders with Phase Three was now even more apparent.

He reminded delegates of the strike at Maclarens factory at Glasgow, owned by the multi-national giant ITT. The strikers had stuck fast to their objective, and had been forced to seek support in other ITT factories in Britain. The result was an ITT stewards’ combine across the country. “That is the sort of rank and file activity we should be fighting for,” he said.

The conference resolution was carried with only a handful of delegates opposed.

AT THE afternoon session JOHN LLYWARCH, one of the six pickets in the first Shrewsbury trial, moved part two of the conference resolution, on the organisation of a rank and file movement.

After delighting the conference with some of his more juicy memories of the Shrewsbury trial, he castigated union leaders and Labour politicians for their refusal to fight to get the six men in prison for picketing released.

TREVOR BALL (NUM, Lea Hall Lodge) spoke about the economic crisis of capitalism. He said the crisis existed in all capitalist countries. Everywhere employers and government were holding wages down. It was the capitalists’ crisis, and they should pay for it.

His members had shown that they were not prepared to be sacrificed to someone else’s crisis, he said. The miners had used their strength and blown a “whopping great hole” through Phase Three.

TERRY HORAN (UCATT) attacked the officials of his union for their apathy over Shrewsbury.

He said UCATT was run by men completely out of touch with the rank and file. His site – John Laings in Edinburgh – and another had come out over Shrewsbury, but had found that other protests, demonstrations and strikes were being held on different days.

There was no coordination, and that was why a rank and file movement was so important.

ERIC BRIGHT (President of UCATT branch at Clifton, Notts) said he had asked Edward Short, Labour’s deputy leader, at an election meeting what Labour would do about the 1875 Conspiracy Act which had led to the prison sentences at Shrewsbury.

“He said he’d repeal all but the conspiracy section,” said Eric. “But that’s just the bit we want scrapping.”

Eric attributed the “massive loss of membership” in UCATT to the behaviour of the executive, especially their “puerile” response to the Shrewsbury case. Shrewsbury showed more than anything else in his experience the importance of a rank and file movement.

“I’ll do all I can in my small way to bring this movement forward,” he promised.

RAB DAWSON (EETPU, Glasgow Corporation Central Electrical Workshops Stewards Committee) sounded a note of caution over part of the resolution which called for support for “all candidates in union elections fighting the right wing.”

The emphasis, he said, should be on “rank and file candidates,” or delegates would find themselves supporting all forms of opportunists from the union bureaucracy who called themselves ‘left’ at election time.

ALAN WATT’S (Ponders End No.5 branch, AUEW) put the caution to the test by moving an amendment to delete the word ‘all’ in the resolution.

“The rank and file movement supports those people who support the rank and file. It does not support those people who do not support the rank and file”, he said to applause. The amendment was carried.

BETTY COATES (a candidate in the elections for the teachers’ union executive) was worried that the resolution said nothing about the accountability of union officials, once elected.

GEORGE POGMORE (a bus inspector from York and member of the national committee of his section of the TGWU) spoke about the “fight for militant policies” called for in the resolution. In November 1972 all bus platform staff had got shift pay, but the inspectors had been denied it, though they worked shifts, he said. A year later, the Pay Board said the shift pay was impossible under Phase Three.

We called a national conference which told the Pay Board that unless we got the shift pay, we’d all work 8am to 4pm. Then, suddenly, a week before we took the action, the Pay Board changed their mind and paid us the shift pay.

EUROPE SINGH (Southward NUT) argued that the resolution’s call for action against racialism did not go far enough. An anti-racialist declaration on its own could be found in most TUC statements. What was needed was a clear commitment for more specific demands.

First the conference should insist on equal status and pay on the shop floor for all black workers. Second, it should call for the repeal of the Immigration Act 1971, and third, should continue the argument against all immigration controls.

“These are nothing to do with over-crowding. They are simply used by people like Powell to spread racialism through the country and through the working class,” he said.

The part of the resolution calling for stronger combine committees and better links between shop stewards drew the two most authoritative contributions of the conference.

GEORGE ANDERSON (TGWU chairman of the joint shop stewards committee at Coventry Radiators) asked: “What kind of combine committee do we want?”

Should it be based entirely on the boundaries created by management or should it be industry-wide?

He had found that as long as his stewards’ combine committee was based on Associated Engineering, a management creation, it served little purpose. But when they had tried to spread it, for instance, through all press work in the components industry, its effectiveness was enormously increased.

We try to change the concept of the combine committee. If Associated Engineering isn’t drawing all the companies with workers doing our kind of work, we say we’re not bound in by management boundaries like sheep. We say, why don’t we amalgamate with some other combine of like workers – why don’t Associated Engineering combines link with those at British Leyland?

George was followed by JOE McGOUGH (chairman of the joint shop stewards committee at Dunlop, Speke, and chairman of the National Dunlop Combine Committee): “The fact that there are 400 delegates filling this hall today shows that there’s a large body of people who are somewhat disenchanted with the union leadership.”

If ever there was a need for joint shop stewards’ committees, it is now. We’ve every reason to believe that we should extend the combines across the national boundaries.

In June 1972 we had a stoppage in Britain and Italy against the Dunlop-Pirelli combine. It made history. It showed that if the rank and file organise, they can confront the same employers in different countries.

Hardly had the cheers died down for Joe McGough than chairman Will Fancy was reading out a telegram of greetings and encouragement from the Italian rank and file movement.

“Pay back AUEW”

RON MURPHY (AUEW/TASS office committee, Manchester AEI) moved an emergency resolution on the fines on the AUEW over the Con-Mech case, and called for delegates to pledge support for the union in its stand against the Industrial Relations Court. He said the refusal of the AUEW to appear before the court had been an important factor in keeping the whole trade union movement from “sliding down the slippery slope to acceptance of the Industrial Relations Act.”

“Of course the AUEW has not fought consistently enough, but at least they had fought,” he said. He called not only for this judgement to be set aside but for the return of previous fines imposed by the NIRC and a pledge of no further seizures.

“We have real, important people here today. They must exert the maximum pressure to get the government to agree to our demands,” he said. The resolution was passed unanimously.

Report from a sit-in

CONFERENCE GAVE a rousing reception to MALCOLM VASS (AUEW Eastleigh No.2) speaking for the Strachan Joint Unions Occupation Committee. Strachan builds Ford van bodies under contract. As part of rationalisation plans the workers were given one minute’s notice.

After three days of picketing they occupied the plant, to stop £2 million worth of car bodies and machinery being taken away. When management became a nuisance they got rid of them. Ford shop stewards had agreed that any Strachan vans that got out would be blacked.

A delegation to Michael Meacher, a new Labour minister, had been told the firm had a right to sack them. Said Malcolm Vass: “Social Contracts mean nothing if they can treat workers as they have treated us at Strachans.

“They want to get their hands on those vans and machinery,” said Malcolm. “They bloody well won’t.”

Greetings from Dublin

CHRIS GIBSON, from the Irish Transport and General Workers Union No.14 branch, gave the conference fraternal greetings from the Dublin Shop Stewards and Rank and File Committee.

He said that the committee had been set up because of the way wage settlements had been agreed every year between union leaders and employers without taking the workers’ interests into account.

The rank and file had organised to great effect, and conferences of up to 350 delegates had been held in Dublin.

They were not yet strong enough to combat the propaganda of the employers and union leaders but they had dented the national wage agreement, and hoped to do more next year.

He wished the conference and the British rank and file movement every success, and promised solidarity from across the Irish Sea.

Solidarity with Express

AN EMERGENCY resolution on the Scottish Daily Express closure received unanimous support. It called for condemnation of the management, all possible support for the takeover and messages of solidarity.

STEPHEN CHILDS (Sheffield NUJ) told the conference the action of the Beaverbrook management was “the biggest scandal to hit the newspaper industry for years. The NUJ has done nothing to save the jobs of the Scottish Daily Express members. These jobs are lost forever once the workers leave the plant.”


Last updated on 9.11.2003