Jim Higgins


Decline of a union

(September 1975)

From the Spectator, 27 September 1975, p.401.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Consider the case of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. It is a sprawling giant of a union with one and a quarter million members. At one time it had branches in the United States; until comparatively recently it had branches in Japan and Australia. Once it was very rich, with a war chest of £18 million. I suppose that most people unacquainted closely with trade unionism would see it as the archetypical trade union – a disciplined industrial band of militant, Morning Star reading shop stewards joyfully ringing bells to get the lads to down tools. At the head of this grim-jawed army, Mr Hugh Scanlon, intent on a rapid march to the socialist millennium and only marginally deflected by the Maoist, Reg Birch, on the left and the Salvationist, Mr Boyd on the right.

Well, it is not like that at all. The union is in fact almost ungovernable. Its war chest has dwindled to £5 million. For the last twenty years its income from subscriptions has not met expenditure. Were it not for some wise investments, on solid capitalist principles, it would leave been bankrupt years ago. As one worried official told me recently: “We have a cash flow problem.”

The divisions and districts of the AUEW operate very much its independent fiefdoms: little power bases from which the local favourite sons sally forth to do battle, or just to enjoy the comforts of conference accommodation.

Today the current problems of the union and the slipping control of the dominant left wing group is not, as many commentators assume, in the institution of the postal ballot but in the fact that the current leadership has not won a major dispute for years. In 1973 the Scanlon strategy was to take on the engineering employers one at a time and roll through a massive and comprehensive claim. The opening battle was on the chosen site at Manchester, Mr Scanlon and the left’s power base. The number of shop stewards holding Communist Party cards ran into hundreds, the local officials were almost uniformly left wingers. After a protracted struggle of sit-ins, lock-outs and plain strikes the union settled for what they could have easily obtained by negotiation. In the aftermath a number of shop stewards found themselves replaced, and one of the officials, Mr Bernard Panter, failed to get re-elected. Since that time Mr Panter has relinquished his party card and is now employed by the more sedate and middle class Electrical Power Engineers Association.

From the Manchester debacle we can trace Mr Bob Wright’s difficulties, in his current bid for re-election to the executive council for that district. It is this problem that makes it necessary for Mr Scanlon to give his casting vote to the dubious manoeuvres to stop postal balloting and to alter the boundaries for electoral districts and the date for elections. Even so, while we hold up our hands in horror at these antics, we should recall the precedent set by governments who delay by-elections and hold up boundary changes to bolster their sagging electoral fortunes.

For the truth is that Mr Scanlon is, if otherwise a rather limited man, basically a democrat. In marked contrast to his predecessor, Lord Carron. Carron it was who set out what he called ‘Carron’s law’. The principle enunciated here was roughly as follows: conferences and delegations can vote the way they like but I will vote they way I like because I hold the block vote card. At one or two conferences the AUEW delegation were set into something of a turmoil from Carron’s somewhat arbitrary application of his law.

Hugh Scanlon is not like that. Indeed, it may well be that his attempts to run the AUEW rather like an oversized shop stewards’ committee – he was by all accounts a very accomplished convenor at Metro Vickers in the dim past – are at the root of some of his problems.

The basic malaise, however, is rather more deep-laid than the personality of Mr Scanlon. The AUEW is ungovernable because the men who drew up its constitution in the early 1920s had a well developed antipathy to being governed at all. Animated, as they were, by the confused principles of revolutionary syndicalism they built into the rules a whole series of checks and balances and a vastly complicated and cumbersome election machinery. The periodic election procedure does at least have the advantage of ensuring that the officials get round to see the members in the last twelve months of their office, rather in the manner of politicians kissing babies.

Another factor in the decline of the AUEW has been the widening, now almost unbridgeable, rift between Mr Scanlon and Mr Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union. In the past this formidable duo struck some terror in hearts as far apart as Cheltenham and the General Council of the TUC. When Mr Wilson told Hugh Scanlon to get his tanks off his lawn, during the 1968/69 confrontation on trade union legislation, there is little doubt that Mr Jones supplied the petrol that got them there.

Through their affiliation to local Labour Parties the two unions were able, by those little agreements that oil the wheels of progress, to ensure the selection of not a few left wing candidates for the parliament.

But all good things inevitably come to an end. With the election of the 1974 Labour Government Mr Jones was developing into a statesman. The TGWU, which elects its General Secretary once and that for life, invests its leader with immense power, including the selection of all the other officials. Such a union is capable of rapid and far reaching policy changes in the time that it takes Jack Jones to change his mind. The AUEW, with its cumbersome procedures would take years to accomplish similar shifts.

It was at Brighton for the 1974 TUC that the growing disenchantment between the two leaders became apparent. Mr Jones, acclaimed as the principle architect of the social contract, let it be known that he might well pop over and straighten out the AUEW delegation who were obtusely opposing his policy. Mr Scanlon who can, on occasion, turn a neat phrase, said ‘I do not care if Jack Jones is Jesus Christ, and he thinks he is, but he will not change the AEUW’s decisions.’ Significantly, perhaps, the AUEW did change their mind, taking the less than glorious course of abstention.

The apotheosis of Mr Jones is now complete. Where last year a few euphoric souls saw him as a future Labour Prime Minister, this year he is seen as rather more than the Labour Prime Minister we have got. As the Jones star rises that of Mr Scanlon declines. At the TUC this year he was unusually quiet. The main running for the AUEW was made by Ken Gill, the Communist leader of the Draughtsmen’s section. But it is not at all the same. Mr Gill, even if Jilly Cooper does think he is sexy, is no substitute for a confident Hugh Scanlon on form.

The reality of the AUEW is of a union with lots of members and not much money. Finances steadily flow away into the drain of a succession of expensive strikes. Its leadership is tired and very unsure of the future. Currently they have to fight court actions brought by their own members and produce a pay policy that is credible to the members. Nothing short of a spectacular breach of the pay limit could be counted a victory and that is not possible. The emperor is not only naked but manifestly impotent into the bargain.


Last updated on 2.11.2003