Jim Higgins

Amalgamating the engineers

(May 1976)

From the Spectator, 29 May 1976, p.15.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Contrary to myth, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers is rather democratic. That bold statement, as is usual with such statements, requires immediate qualification. Within the amalgamated union there are four sections: Engineering with 1,200,000 members; the Constructional Engineers with 30,000; the Foundry workers with 50,000; and the Technical and Supervisory Staff (TASS) section with 130,000. The first three sections all elect their officials by periodic membership ballot; TASS appoints its officials. It was this last deviation from the AUEW norm that gave rise to much heart-searching and ill-concealed anger at the Engineering section’s annual policy-making National Committee in Scarborough last week.

The National Committee is composed of fifty-two delegates and is a committee rather than a conference, because – under the strange code of the AUEW – a committee can instruct, while a conference may only direct. It is the highest formal expression of the founding members’ insistence that the rank and file must have the last word. This admirable desire also gives rise to a very large rule book and the feeling that procedures are such as to prevent anyone from doing anything.

Practically all the members of the committee are men who have gown middle-aged in the union and its industrial activity, They are very experienced, convenors of large factories and district presidents. They also have a predeliction for addressing their fifty-one colleagues as if they were a mass meeting of thousands, a practice in no way abated by the fact that no one ever applauds. The atmosphere of ritual is further enhanced by the convention that, although everyone knows everyone else quite well, delegates refer to one another by their numbers. It does give the air of a rather liberal prison regime to hear someone say: “Number 33 is talking nonsense, but I agree absolutely with number 50”.

To complicate matters further, the committee is fairly evenly divided between left and right, with the right having the edge of late. That edge was expressed fairly clearly in the twenty-nine to twenty-two (one abstention) decision to support the TUC Government pay deal. Although again that is not exactly a left-right division, at least one delegate told me, in anguished tones, that he voted for the pay deal because he had always supported Hugh Scanlon and could not stop now. Of such touching loyalties are policies made and broken.

On the other hand, the National Committee was evenly split, twenty-six to twenty-six, on the question of full amalgamation of all the sections. Superficially, the argument centred around the question of the periodic election of the assimilated TASS officials. In practice it is fairly clear that the right’s objection is that TASS is firmly under the control of Communist Party members. To add the weight of TASS officials and delegates to the Executive committee and National Committee would seriously alter the balance in favour of the left. Because of their existing contracts of employment, the TASS officials could demand seats on the Executive that would be theirs for life. They would be sitting with members subject to quinquennial election and, at the same time, eligible for election to such powerful and prestigious posts as president and general secretary, without the danger of losing their sinecure it they fail to be elected.

This injustice, as real as it is apparent, gave the right wing a powerful peg on which to hang their objections to TASS. It also gave rise to the strange spectacle of the left, who in most other unions demand the periodic election of appointed officials, cautioning patience and undemanding of the TASS officials’ dilemma. It is indeed a dilemma for the TASS officials, since recent AEUW elections have shown a well defined tendency to oust sitting left-wingers and install those thought to be “moderate”. The TASS General Secretary, Mr Ken Gill, would undoubtedly find it extremely galling, having achieved the highest office of his union, to be out of a job in three years’ time.

The left, of course, argue that if the postal ballot were dropped in favour of branch balloting then TASS would be far more willing to accept the electoral principle in the future. This, however, is not a point that Mr Gill was prepared to confirm. His point, expressed with some force, is that the AUEW wishes to become the sole union in the engineering, industry. If the union makes it impossible for appointed officials to maintain their existing rights and conditions then any prospect of further amalgamation with other unions will be much circumscribed.

Now that is a point of some power. A few years ago the Engineering union made amalgamation proposals to the National Union of Vehicle Builders, a quite significant union in the car industry. Talks broke down on the engineers’ insistence that NUVB officials should be subject to election. Almost immediately Mr Jack Jones, a man with his eye to the main chance, nipped in and offered the security that the engineers refused. The NUVB is now an integral part of the Transport union and as a result the AUEW is in a minority position in a number of important car plants. It may be unlikely, but is not beyond the bounds of possibility, that if TASS are eventually rejected Mr Jones might make them an offer they could not refuse. Which would take his already massive union over the magic two million mark.

The very real fear of the right, and left, in the AUEW that Jack Jones will deprive them of their leading role in engineering was the factor that made the National Committee stop short of completely wrecking the amalgamation. By a narrow majority they passed a resolution that calls for election of all officials, a joint rule book, common subscriptions and benefits; but this is clearly a delaying or bargaining position, not an absolute condition. Amalgamation, in the full sense, will be delayed for another twelve months and perhaps put in jeopardy.

Why, you might ask, should we care about all these divisions in the AUEW? The answer is simple. The real problem of national wages determination is the possibility of foundering on differentials, particularly in engineering. Broadly speaking, large numbers of semi-skilled production workers are in the Transport union, with the overwhelming majority of skilled men in the AUEW. Inter-union rivalry will vastly exacerbate an existing problem. Trade union patriotism is as resistant to rationality as any other kind of chauvinism. Unions wish to maximise their membership and bargaining strength, while employers with any sense want to avoid demarcation and differential disputes. One union for engineering workers would seem to be a good way to satisfy everybody, but it will not happen this year.


Last updated on 2.11.2003