Jim Higgins

Trade unions

AUEW election

(November 1975)

From the Spectator, 29 Nov 1975, p.690.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Hats off for Mr Scanlon, two minutes silence for the blasted career of Mr Bob Wright, a little respect for the fallen, if you please. In the current round of elections in the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, the members have cast their votes in a way that may change the political complexion of the union’s leading body, the executive council. The much publicised and execrated three-all split on the executive, which has permitted Mr Scanlon to exercise his casting vote on some very contentious questions, will be ended.

Before anybody starts celebrating the demise of the AUEW left wing and buying heavily in engineering company shares, they might like to pause and contemplate one or two facts. Just for starters, the three-all deadlock is a very recent phenomena. There are, in fact, seven seats on the executive council. The difficulty arose when the previous General Secretary, right-winger Jim Conway, was killed in the Paris air crash. His successor, John Boyd, another right-winger, had to vacate his Scottish division executive seat to take up the post of secretary. This left a vacancy and reduced “moderate” strength by one. The vacancy has now been filled by Mr Gavin Laird who last week defeated Jimmy Reid by a two to one majority. The latest line-up is really a reversion to the right-wing majority that has existed for years, with the very brief interlude I outline above. It is a chastening thought that the AUEW’s left-wing image was formed and hardened over a period when both the Executive and the policy-making National Committee were invariably under moderate control.

The simple, not to say simple-minded, calculations of too many commentators leaves out of account the complex factors of union politics. Like most other spheres of endeavour, our union hierarchs are often motivated by personal rivalry and antipathy as much as ideological differences. Mr Reg Birch, for example, a Maoist executive councilman, although very much a man of the left, is not overly fond of Mr Scanlon. This probably dates back to the time when Mr Birch was a leading member of the Communist Party. He was told by the CP bureaucrats not to run against Mr Scanlon, a Labour Party member, for the office of President. This instruction was ignored and eventually led to Birch’s expulsion from the party and a certain strain between the two gentlemen. Which may also explain why, on occasion, Mr Birch has voted in solidarity with Mr Boyd, rather than his natural, if more orthodox, left-wing colleagues. Indeed the voting record of the AUEW’s executive would show some very strange alignments. All of which points to the danger of attempting to import the standards of conventional parliamentary politics into analysis of the trade union movement. It can only be misleading and, in the case of the AUEW, destructive of serious analysis. Consider, on any single trade union question there are at least three answers. Because most leading trade unionists are first and foremost trade union patriots, they will divide in all sorts of ways depending on their own experience and estimation of the interests of the union. Even the allegedly disciplined battalions of the CP have found themselves on different sides on a number of occasions.

It would be a mistake for us to imagine that Mr John Boyd has a total aversion to strikes. Moderation is, after all, only a relative term. Mr Boyd has led strikes in his time and may well do so in the future. In the engineering industry, with its multiplicity of pay rates and payments systems, with its, generally, bad to intolerable working conditions, there are countless situations arising daily, not to say hourly, that can give rise to bitter disputes. Under such circumstances no AUEW official who wants to be re-elected can let the members even suspect that he is against strikes in principle.

If we can accept this unpalatable truth, then the future development of the union becomes far less clear-cut, much more uncertain. In truth, the future will depend on factors far outside the control of the AUEW electorate. Today the urgent threat of unemployment, short time and rationalisation are facts that bear heavily on rank and file engineering workers. Against this background of economic disaster, Mr Wilson has won a substantial ideological victory over the trade union left wing. As is proved by their voting patterns, AUEW members have come to the conclusion that a left-wing union leadership would involve them in a confrontation they cannot win. Just as well sit back and hope to get £6. The urgent question, however, and one to which the Government would dearly like the answer, is, how long will this quietism continue? Suppose that the economic recovery is too long delayed, suppose – not a large supposition this – that unemployment and inflation continue to rise. Suppose that the £6 limit gives way to a £3 limit. Then the tide of resentment might well start to run very powerfully.

In the AUEW the most influential group of members are the time-served, highly skilled men. If differentials are significantly eroded over time by flat rate increases there could be serious difficulties with this key section of workers. Difficulties that could snowball throughout the engineering industry. Once a wave of mass militancy of that sort occurs British capitalism would be in a very bad way indeed and all the legions of moderates in union head offices could do nothing to stop the rot.

That, of course, is an extreme projection and for the time being you may still sleep uneasily in your beds. The AUEW right wing are celebrating their famous victory, even Mr Boyd, himself a teetotaller, is no doubt blowing his Salvation Army tuba with increased vigour. Conversely, the left wing is much put down. Bob Wright, that pillar of the “broad left” caucus, finds himself without a job and very dim prospects. He could, as they say, “go back to the tools” but at his age and with his record that might prove difficult. He could run for lesser AUEW office, but for one who was Hugh Scanlon’s handpicked successor that would be quite a come-down. More likely he will take on a job in another union but it will not be the same.

In some ways the defeat of Bob Wright will be a loss for the union. He is an accomplished negotiator, in a union not over-endowed with such talent. His successful opponent Mr Terry Duffy, a previously, unknown assistant divisional organiser, will find his path rather difficult, with militant activists lying in ambush, unless he displays more form than his track record indicates so far.

Also suffering will be Hugh Scanlon; his tenure of office has not been crowned with unsullied success. He cannot boast a massive increase in his members’ living standards, as can Mr Joe Gormley. He cannot give evidence of far-reaching political influence, as can Jack Jones. His drive to build the union through amalgamations is faltering on the difficulty of achieving a joint rule book. The union is financially under par. And now, on top of all this, he is faced with a rejuvenated, right-wing, executive majority flushed with victory. All of which will add to the aggravation of life at his Peckham Road headquarters. Even before this last blow there were signs that Mr Scanlon was beginning to feel the strain. Of late he has left the projection of union policy to others, his appearance; in the public eye and on our television screens less frequent.

Still he has three years to go before he retires. That will cover a crucial time in the calendar of industrial relations. Mr Scanlon, contrary to premature reports, is not dead yet. To achieve and hold high office in the second biggest union in Britain requires a certain intestinal fortitude. One small example may give some insight into Hugh Scanlon’s character and possible future conduct. A while ago, consistent with his station in life, he purchased a weekend retreat atop a cliff on the South Coast. Not long after, this seaside “dacha” slid, uninsured, into the sea. Undeterred, our Hughie has now purchased another such residence at Broadstairs – guess where – on top of a cliff! Now there is determination for you.


Last updated on 2.11.2003